Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - More than 200 members of a "lost" Jewish tribe are set to immigrate to Israel next month from northeastern India in what some here say is nothing less than a miracle of biblical proportions.
"This is a project of national and historical and even theological significance," said Michael Freund, chairman and founder of Shavei Israel, an organization that helps communities around the world return to their Jewish roots and to Israel.
He said the Bnei Menashe (children of Manasseh) were descendants of one of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israel.
"Their ancestors were exiled from the land 27 centuries ago, and despite wandering for so long and so far, they managed to preserve their sense of Jewish identity and now, just as the prophets foretold, we are witnessing their return. It is a miracle."
Nearly 1,000 Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel in a mere trickle through various conversion/immigration plans worked out over the last 15 years or so. Another 218 are scheduled to arrive in November. But there are 7,000 more still waiting to come to Israel.
Their story began 2,700 years ago in Bible times when the Jewish people in Israel were divided into two kingdoms. Around 723 B.C. the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and captured 10 of the 12 Hebrew tribes.
Some 75 percent of the Jewish nation was exiled and disappeared, said Freund. They became known as the "10 lost tribes."
The community in India always referred to themselves as Bnei Menashe (the children of Manasseh) and it was a central theme in all their ancient prayers and chants, Freund told Cybercast News Service.
According to their tradition, they spent several centuries in China until a despotic emperor persecuted them and seized their holy book. They then settled in India, Freund said.
Recently, about 100 members of the community already living here gathered to celebrate the Succoth holiday. Many live in settlements in disputed territory, including a number of families that were evacuated last year from the Gaza Strip.
Some dressed in brightly colored traditional Indian clothing and sang traditional Indian songs with gusto. At the gathering they learned that their kinsmen would be coming to Israel soon.
Tamar Astrow, married to an American and with three children, was one of the first Bnei Menashe to come to Israel some 16 years ago.
Every morning when she was growing up in India, Tamar said, she awoke to the sound of her mother praying, "God when are you going to take me to Israel?" she said. With no foreign language skills, no education and no money, her mother looked for a miracle.
"Even my friends [said] 'I think your mother is crazy!' But today the prayer is answered."
When she was a teenager, Tamar's parents sent her to Bombay to learn about Judaism. A visiting Israeli rabbi took the names of students who wanted to immigrate.
But when the course finished all the participants returned home. Tamar became a successful hairdresser and heard nothing from Israel for several years. When she finally received a visa, she no long wanted to go. But her mother persuaded her.
"This is my prayer. You're the key to the family. You have to go...then all the family will come," she remembered her mother telling her. So she immigrated and eventually her parents and all of her siblings did, too.
Zvi Khaute moved to Israel with his wife Nurit and their son in 2000. "It was a dream come true," he said. "It was so emotional when the flight touched down in Tel Aviv airport. We were crying because it was a real dream come true."
The Khautes, who now have three sons, moved to the community of Kiryat Arba, alongside Hebron, where the Biblical patriarchs are buried. "We wanted to reconnect to the roots [of] our forefathers, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."
Despite their compelling stories, immigration to Israel for the Bnei Menashe has been fraught with religious and bureaucratic stumbling blocs.
A breakthrough came in March 2005 when Israel's Chief Rabbinate recognized the Bnei Menashe as descendents of the Jewish people.
The hurdles remained, however.
"In order to remove any question marks about their status, the chief rabbi decided that it would be best for them to undergo a process of conversion. And in practice what that means is no-one then can question their status as Jews," said Freund.
Several months later, the chief rabbi sent a rabbinical court to India to convert 216 member of the community in Mizoram and two babies have been born since then, he said.
That has not assured the arrival of the rest, but Freund said there is no reason why the government shouldn't work out a plan to allow all to convert and move to Israel, too.
Khaute said 7,000 Bnei Menashe in India were longing to immigrate. Those already here are productive members of society, he added.
"We want to play a part," he said. At least 50 of the community are serving in the Israeli army and 14 of them fought in Lebanon during the war this summer, he said.
"The Jewish people are all over the world. So each and every one has a part to play for the development of the State of Israel. It is a kind of a redemption process. The ingathering is starting now. It will take time but slowly, slowly [it will happen]," he said.
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