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Help 'Lost Jews' Find Their Way Home
Last month, an extraordinary meeting of Israel's ministerial committee on immigration and absorption took place in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. At the top of the agenda was the fate of more than 7,000 Bnei Menashe, a long-lost community living in the farthest reaches of northeastern India.
The Bnei Menashe, or "sons of Manasseh," are descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, which were exiled by the Assyrian empire more than 27 centuries ago. The community resides primarily in the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh, where they observe the Sabbath, keep kosher and celebrate Jewish holidays.
Despite generations of wandering, the Bnei Menashe never forgot who they were, where they had come from or where they aspired to return.
Three times a day, every day, they turn in silent prayer toward Jerusalem, pleading for an end to their long exile and their return home to Zion.
That dream is now poised, at last, to become a reality.
As chairman of Shavei Israel, an organization that has assisted the community for over a decade, I've lobbied intensively for much of the past year for the ministerial committee to address the Bnei Menashe issue.
Over the past decade, Shavei Israel brought 1,700 Bnei Menashe on aliyah, but the previous government headed by Ehud Olmert froze their immigration, leaving some 7,232 members of the community stuck in India.
This injustice simply must be corrected.
The Bnei Menashe are a blessing for the State of Israel. Those who have already made aliyah have been extremely successful integrating into Israeli society.
Approximately 96 percent of Bnei Menashe immigrants to Israel are employed, supporting themselves and their families and contributing to the state and its economy. A mere 4 percent -- less than half the national average -- rely on social welfare to make ends meet.
Nearly all young Bnei Menashe men are drafted into the army, the majority serving in combat units. And a growing number of the youth are pursuing higher education at Israeli universities in fields ranging from computer science to social work. Several have also received rabbinical ordination.
And rest assured, the Bnei Menashe are our lost brethren. In March 2005, Israel's Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized them as "descendants of Israel," and said they should be brought to the Jewish state.
He also ruled that because they were cut off from the Jewish people for millennia, the Bnei Menashe are required to undergo conversion to remove any doubt about their personal status.
Put simply, the Bnei Menashe strengthen the Jewish people and the State of Israel no less than we do them.
Speaking to the members of the ministerial committee, I made a simple yet forceful plea: It is time for Israel to let the remaining Bnei Menashe come home. Enough with the delays, enough with the bureaucracy. Let my people in!
And then a miracle took place. After deliberating over the matter, the committee, headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, formally decided to draft a government resolution and bring it to the Cabinet by the end of the summer.
The resolution will permit all the remaining Bnei Menashe in India to make aliyah, and will finally bring an end to their years of waiting.
This means there will soon be an historic turning point, one that will restore these 7,232 precious souls to the Jewish people.
The Bnei Menashe are part of the extended Jewish family. They are committed Zionists and observant Jews, and they are reaching out across the centuries to reconnect with our people. We need to extend a welcoming hand back and bring them to Jerusalem.
Diaspora Jewry has an important role to play in making this happen. Israel's Treasury has already made clear that much of the funding for transporting the immigrants and settling them in Israel will have to come from elsewhere. Hence, we will all need to step up to help bring the Bnei Menashe home.
As I listened to the committee approve its decision, I truly felt as if I was standing on the banks of the Red Sea, watching the waters begin to part.
Soon enough, I am sure, the Bnei Menashe will cross the sea, reuniting with the land and people of Israel after a remarkable journey.
Manasseh's children are at last coming home. Let's welcome them with open arms.
Michael Freund is a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He is the founder and chairman of Shavei Israel www.shavei.org, a Jerusalem-based organization that helps the Bnei Menashe and other "lost Jews" to return to the Jewish people.