Every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir has received the same request from a group of people in India: We are descendents of the Jewish people and we want to be recognized and allowed to settle in Israel.
Those pleas fell on deaf ears until 1996, when a similar letter was sent to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and spotted by a deputy press officer, Michael Freund.
“I was friends with Bobby Brown, who handled diaspora affairs [for Netanyahu], and when this matter came up it sounded intriguing,” Freund said. “I decided to meet with some members of the community. I did not buy into the Lost Tribes bit, but I viewed them as righteous gentiles.”
That view changed as he pursued the matter and traveled to northeastern India a half-dozen times to “learn of their customs, history and traditions.”
“I became convinced that they are descendents of the Jewish people, of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, the tribe of Menashe,” Freund said. “The Bible describes how 27 centuries ago the Assyrian Empire invaded the land of Israel and captured the northern kingdom, which consisted of 10 tribes. They cast them into exile. “The Bnei Menashe [children of Menashe] believe their ancestors went east into China, where they stayed for several centuries until they were forced to flee by an evil emperor. They then wandered south and west into what is now northeastern India, where they have lived for the past few centuries.”
Freund, 38, born in Manhattan and raised in Westchester, said the more familiar he became with the Bnei Menashe, the more he was “taken by their level of dedication, sincerity and strong desire to rejoin the Jewish people.”
Through his efforts, Israel’s Ministry of Interior in 1997 permitted 100 members of the community to travel to Israel on tourist visas. While here, they underwent a formal conversion by Israel’s chief rabbinate.
But the path to citizenship was not as easy for some. When 71 arrived in June 2003, Israel’s new interior minister slowed down the arrival of the others, explaining that Israel should not go to the Third World looking for people to bring over.
“To me, that statement bordered on racism,” said Freund.
Raised a Conservative Jew, Freund became Modern Orthodox while attending Ramaz High School in Manhattan after graduating from Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton and a master’s in business from Columbia. He made aliyah with his wife and a son in February 1995; they now have five sons.
To bypass what he termed a “bureaucratic smokescreen,” Freund met in late 2003 with the Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. At that point, Freund was working as director general of Amishav, a group focused on finding and helping the descendents of the 10 Lost Tribes.
“I asked him to consider issuing a ruling regarding the status of Bnei Menashe, just as [the chief rabbinate] had regarding other diaspora communities,” he said. A rabbinical court was sent to India and based on its finding, Rabbi Amar in March 2005 decided to “recognize them as descendents of the Jewish people.”
Freund, who in 2004 founded Shavei Israel to continue the work of Amishav after he said it “essentially became defunct,” worked with the Chief Rabbinate to set up rabbinical courts in India. The court converted 218 members of Bnei Menashe and last November they all made aliyah — but only with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s help after both the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Absorption tried to block it. There are now an additional 7,000 Bnei Menashe who want to make aliyah. He said his organization, which works in nine countries with communities that have a historic connection to the Jewish people, operates three centers in India that teach the Bnei Menashe Hebrew, Jewish history and culture. But recently the Indian government said it did not want further conversions to Judaism on its territory, and the Israeli government said it was not willing to allow them to enter Israel unless they were converted first. “We’re looking at various options,” Freund said. “I believe they are a blessing for the State of Israel and the Jewish people because they are honest, hard working, decent people who serve in the army and support themselves. There is no reason why Israel should not allow the rest of the community to come.”