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JERUSALEM, Dec. 23 (JTA)--Shlomo Gangte is a graphic designer, a documentary filmmaker and a recently ordained rabbi. That wouldn't be so unusual, except that Gangte is one of the recently arrived members of the Bnei Menashe, a community from northeastern India that says it is descended from one of the biblical Lost Tribes of Israel. Along with 95 other members of the community, Gangte immigrated to Israel in late August.
They were brought by Amishav--Hebrew for "My People Return"--a group that has helped 700 of the Bnei Menashe come to Israel during the past dozen years.
"We prayed to come as a nation and see this land," said Gangte, 35, who immigrated with his wife and two small children. "There is a higher degree of holiness here."
For now, Gangte and 60 of his fellow emigres are living in Shavei Shomron, a small Jewish settlement in the West Bank. It is located between Nablus and Kalkilya, two Palestinian cities that Israeli officials have described as breeding grounds for terrorists.
The recent immigrants don't seem concerned that they might be living in dangerous territory, surrounded by Arab villages and with Israeli soldiers based in the community.
"We want to be on the frontier," said Gangte, a short, trim man with a quick smile and energetic manner. "We knew about what was happening here before we came."
But it is more than that, added Naomi Sing Sung, a married woman whose hair is covered with a soft, olive green hat. In India, members of Bnei Menashe were singled out for their customary dress, whether it was the men who wore yarmulkes (head coverings) or the women who covered their hair.
"Here, men can cover their heads with pride, freely," she said. "There, it wasn't always so easy."
Advocates for the Bnei Menashe had struggled in relative obscurity to convince Israelis that the Indians were long-lost Jews who had returned to the faith. Their cause was aided by the recent publication of Across the Sabbath River, a book by veteran Israeli journalist Hillel Halkin that documents the search for the biblical lost tribes. Certain songs and features of Bnei Menashe rituals convinced Halkin that the group has Jewish roots. The Bnei Menashe claim to descent from the tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 tribes that was driven from ancient Israel in the eighth century B.C.E. by Assyrian conquerors.
According to Bnei Menashe tradition, their ancestors wandered eastward toward China, then made their way south into what is now northeastern India and nearby Myanmar. Today, some 5,000 Bnei Menashe live in the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, where much of the population is Christian, converted by British missionaries during the late 19th century. When the missionaries first arrived in the region, they found that many of the locals worshiped one God and were familiar with the stories of the Bible. They nonetheless succeeded in converting most of the native population, though many of the people continued to believe they were descended from ancient Israelites.
About 25 years ago, a group of Bnei Menashe decided to adopt a Jewish lifestyle and observance. They were later discovered by the founder of Amishav, Eliyahu Avichail, an Israeli rabbi who wanders the globe in search of lost Jews in order to bring them back to Judaism and Israel. Avichail, and several other Israeli rabbis, believe the descendants of lost tribes could help offset Israel's dwindling demographics against the burgeoning Arab population.
"I believe that groups like the Bnei Menashe constitute a large, untapped demographic and spiritual reservoir for Israel and the Jewish people," said the director of Amishav, Michael Freund. The organization has created a Jewish outreach center in Mizoram. It also translated and published several books into Mizo--the language used by Mizoram's Bnei Menashe community--including a prayer book, a Hebrew-English-Mizo dictionary and a guide to Jewish holidays. Despite such efforts, it has been no simple matter to bring and absorb the Bnei Menashe into Israel.
According to Israel's Law of Return, the Bnei Menashe are not officially Jewish. Because of this, they do not receive any of the benefits given to most new immigrants in Israel. As a result, Amishav has taken on the responsibility of providing for the Bnei Menashe while they undergo official conversions to Judaism.
At Shavei Shomron, Rivka Bondy is overseeing the absorption of the latest group of emigres, a task she views with a certain amount of spiritual zeal. For one thing, she points out, the settlement is located near the lands that belonged in biblical times to the tribe of Menashe. The settlement falls under the aegis of the absorption department of a local West Bank council. Despite the dangerous location of the settlements it serves, the department has been absorbing immigrants primarily from the former Soviet Union, France and North America since 1989. But as those sources of immigration began drying up in the last five years, Amishav contacted the council to see if it would be willing to absorb the latest group of Bnei Menashe immigrants, which included 10 families and 15 singles. The council soon agreed.
"We start from scratch," said Baruch Lior, director of the absorption department for the local settlement council. "Here it's families that need conversion but that have the traditions and lifestyles, so they're more than ready to do it."
For the most part, the Bnei Menashe are not insulted by the government's demand that they convert. They say, however, that they are surprised by the number of Israelis who are not religious and do not live a Jewishly observant lifestyle. "I expected that the nation of Israel would be living and loving God as I've been doing for the last 20 years," said Yehuda, one of the older immigrants. "But I'm still happy to be here, and if the nation of Israel decides I must convert, then that is acceptable."
Some are still surprised by the reality of modern Israel. "I love the country, and I did what I had to to come here, but it's a surprise, not everything is as I expected," said Noam, whose newborn daughter, Osnat, is the group's first sabra baby. He spoke in the sparsely furnished, unheated cinder block house he shares with his wife, Naomi. "People don't always know what to make of us," he said, referring to the tribe's Asian appearance and religious garb. "Yet I'm not sure what to make of Israelis.''