Associated Press

Community is mentally and physically prepared to get converted to Judaism and leave for promised land

GAUHATI, India — Thousands of people in a remote corner of India who claim to be members of a lost tribe of Israel are pressing ahead with their studies of Judaism in hopes of moving to the Jewish state, community leaders said.

Israel recently announced it would stop the conversions of the 6,000 Bnei Menashe in the wake of complaints from the Indian government. Instead, Israel said it would allow them to emigrate and then perform the conversions.

Members of the group from the northeastern Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur call themselves the “Bnei Menashe,” or children of Menashe, and believe they are descendants of the Israelite tribe of Manasseh.

“We are aware of the Israeli government decision, but our people have not lost hope,” Jeremiah Hnamte, adviser of the Bnei Menashe Council, told The Associated Press from Aizawl, capital of Mizoram.

The community “are mentally and physically prepared to get converted to Judaism and leave for their promised land,” he said.

Earlier this year, an Israeli chief rabbi recognized the Bnei Menashe as one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, ruling that they followed several Jewish traditions. The rabbi, Shlomo Amar, ordered their formal conversions to Orthodox Judaism, which would be crucial to their recognition as Jews by Israeli religious authorities.

Bnei Menashe members believe they are descendants of Jews who were banished from biblical Israel by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C.E. and gradually worked their way eastward to India. In the 19th century, British missionaries to India converted the Bnei Menashe members — who were then animists — to Christianity.

In September, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office sent six rabbis to India, who converted 600 members of the tribe to Judaism to ensure they could immigrate to Israel under state law.

But New Delhi expressed concerns after the mass conversions.

Hnamte said the rabbis returned to Israel after being turned away from Manipur state.

Instead of converting the Bnei Menashe in their home region of northeastern India, the rabbis will now wait to convert them after Israel brings them to the Jewish state, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

The Bnei Menashe continue to prepare for their conversions with the help of community members who have already undergone the process.

“I am still carrying out my job as I have not received any fresh instructions from the Rabbinate,” said Rabbi Yahuda Gin, who originally hails from Mizoram and returned to Aizawl about four months ago to teach the Bnei Menashe the finer points of the religion.

“These are matters of faith, not governmental affairs, and, therefore, our work should go on,” Gin told The Associated Press.

Gin said he was sent with the consent of Amar.

About 800 members of the Bnei Menashe have been brought to Israel — and formally converted — over the last decade by the private group Amishav, Hebrew for “my people returns.”

According to Amishav, there is ample evidence to show the Bnei Menashe are of Jewish descent. Their customs, including mourning rites, hygiene and the use of a lunar calendar, closely mirror Jewish traditions.