Lost Jews Find a Welcoming Audience

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Throughout history, countless Jews have been considered hidden or lost. Shavei Israel finds them and reconnects them with Israel. 

Throughout history, countless Jews have been considered — or considered themselves — hidden or lost. Some claim to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes; others were forced to practice Judaism in secret.

Today, thanks to modern technology and resources, Shavei Israel, a nonprofit organization founded by Michael Freund, finds these Jews and reconnects them with Israel.

Laura Ben-David, director of marketing and new media for Shavei Israel, spoke at Lower Merion Synagogue on Nov. 9 about Bnei Menashe, a group from a remote region in northeast India living as Orthodox Jews who claim to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes; Bnei Anousim, lost Jews from the Spanish Inquisition; and Hidden Jews of Poland.

“You have people all over the world that show they have a connection to Israel,” Ben-David said. “I feel like we’re doing something that’s very important.”

The tribe of Menashe, which was lost 2,700 years ago, had been writing letters to prime ministers since the time of David Ben-Gurion. Each year, they were ignored until Freund, who was working in in the prime minister’s office in the early 1990s, saw a letter. This led Freund on a journey to help these people — and ultimately open Shavei Israel.

“Most people thought they got absorbed by other parts of the world,” Ben- David exclaimed. “All of the sudden, these people are saying they are the lost tribes of Menashe.”

The Bnei Menashe, which are made up of Mizo, Kuki and Chin peoples, migrated through Asia and other countries until they ended up in the northeast corner of India in the 17th and 18th centuries.

After losing their last sefer Torah 500 years ago, the question was: How did they maintain their Jewish identity? Ben-David learned firsthand about their culture when she spent a week with Bnei Menashe last November. She described them as having “tenacity, determination and a strong sense of tradition.”

“To them it’s very simple: You’re supposed to live in Israel, so you live in Israel” she told the Jewish Exponent. “We thought they had disappeared, they thought we had disappeared.”

She expected a few people, but much to her surprise, there were 10,000 observant Jews.

They practiced Shabbat, wore kipot and celebrated the holidays. They even sacrificed animals for many years because they were never told it was wrong.  

“It was one of the most incredible experiences I ever had,” she said. “I got there and I was blown away.”

All of them want to make aliyah; however, since they are considered descendants of the lost tribes, they must convert to be halachically Jewish. Because they are practicing Jews, the conversions are usually quick, Ben–David noted.

“The whole community takes such pride and happiness in aliyah,” she said.

So far, 3,000 people have made aliyah, many of whom have left friends and family members behind, not knowing when they will see them again. One young adult even gave up going for his doctorate to go to Israel.

When they arrive in the Jewish homeland, Shavei Israel has an absorption center that supports them for three months and helps them assimilate to the culture.

The Bnei Anousim, who got lost 500 years ago during the Spanish Inquisition, were forced to convert, leave Spain or practice secretly. Many of their descendants would light candles on Friday nights and did not know why. Their mothers could not tell them because there was a risk of getting caught, Ben-David explained.

“The practices were maintained without the reasons for them,” she said.

There were also people in Poland who did not know they were Jewish until recently. Many Jews returned to Poland after the Holocaust, but chose to act as Christians or Catholics and hide their Judaism.

But, recently, as grandparents began to pass away, they dropped the bombshell of telling their kids and grandkids they were actually Jewish.

“They didn’t want that secret to die with them,” she said. “For a lot of these people, it kind of rocked the entire foundation of who they are.”

On Christmas, one girl would eat latkes and spin dreidels, but didn’t know why.

“It didn’t mean anything to them. That’s just what they did,” she said.

Nina Dardashti, of Lower Merion, lived on a kibbutz in 2008 with members of Bnei Menashe. She said their love for Israel was evident because they showed up in dress clothes to work on the farm.

“They thought it was an honor to work the land of Israel,” she recalled. “They are very simple and really love Israel.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747

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