12 August 2009 World ORT makes return a reality for a lost tribe For thousands of years Jews have dreamed of returning to the Land of Israel; nowhere is that dream more vividly held today than in the hearts of the Bnei Menashe, some of whom are undergoing ORT pre-aliyah training in Mumbai. A group of 16 young Bnei Menashe, who claim descent from the lost tribe of Menashe, are several weeks into training funded by the International Federation of Christians and Jews (IFCJ) at the ORT centre in Indias largest city. They are following in the footsteps of 25 Bnei Menashe boys who, having benefited from World ORTs pre-aliyah programme over the past two years are now studying hard at the Kfar HaNoar Hadati Educational Village at Kfar Hasidim, one of the more than 30 campuses participating in World ORTs Kadima Mada programme. Bnei Menashe students in an Electrical and Mechanical Basic Hand Tools Class Coming as they do from remote towns and villages in the rural province of Manipur in Indias north-east corner the computer studies, Jewish studies, Hebrew, childcare, hairdressing and other courses available to them is a thrilling taste of the challenges and opportunities awaiting them on their return to Eretz Yisrael and they do see it as a return. I am eagerly awaiting it, said Ezra Mate, 26, of his aliyah, the precise timing of which depends on various political and bureaucratic issues to be resolved in Israel and India. I am one of the lost tribe of Menashe and we are in exile here. All my ancestors were living in Eretz Yisrael. It is a blessing to be there. For Arielah Guite, 24, whose cousin was wounded fighting in the first Lebanon war, Israel is the holiest place; it is a blessed country. There is only one God in Israel and it is our ancestral homeland I am really excited about going to live in Israel; I am counting the days even though I am really happy studying at ORT. Levona Chongloi, 18, expressed a similarly strong connection to the Land. It is the home of my ancestors it is my homeland. I want to return to my homeland, she said. And Daisy Haokip, also 18, added: I am very excited about making aliyah because Eretz Yisrael is the Promised Land. I do not want to stay in Manipur any longer; it is difficult to practise Judaism in a place where people condemn me for being Jewish. The origins of the Bnei Menashe are shrouded in mystery but many have converted to Judaism in recent decades despite the prejudice of the local Christian communities of which they and their families used to be a part. Since the 1980s several hundred Bnei Menashe have moved to Israel but the communitys continued immigration was blocked in 2003 by the then Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. The gates were reopened two years later by Israels Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, who accepted their claim because of their exemplary devotion to Judaism. Although Chief Rabbi Amars decision paved the way for Bnei Menashe to qualify to enter Israel under the Law of Return, they are expected to undergo conversion because of their long separation from Judaism. To help the Bnei Menashe assimilate readily into Israels modern, urban workforce and society, the IFCJ is investing directly in ORTs pre-aliyah training programme. Most of the first group of young men and women to benefit from the IFCJs generosity are housed in ORTs gender-segregated hostels in Mumbai. All of them are learning Modern Hebrew, basic IT, and Jewish history and culture but they have a choice of majors. Levona, whose father used to be secretary at their local synagogue, has chosen computer studies although she has ambitions to become a doctor. This is a computer age. No matter what profession you choose, computers are important so I thought it would be a good idea to do this course, she said. Once she completes the ORT course she hopes she will be able to make aliyah immediately with her parents. If not, she will apply for medical school in India and, if necessary, move to Israel once she is a qualified doctor. We do not have any relatives in Israel so it is very important to have the right skills to find work. ORT is teaching us skills that will come in handy in the future, Levona said. Arielah, whose father is a retired civil servant, is doing a one-year diploma course in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE). If my dream comes true and I make aliyah then I would like to work in a maon for young children, she said. I am sure that the ECCE diploma will help me to find work in Israel. Thanks to the ORT programme I feel more confident about living in Israel now because I am learning so many new things and I can see that I will be able to stand on my own feet. As much as she likes her ECCE course, Arielah is typical of the group in readily nominating the Hebrew lessons as the most enjoyable part of the programme. We just want to speak whatever Hebrew we know, she said. Sometimes we do not know whether what we say is correct but we just want to speak it. Ezra, whose father is a rice farmer, is one of seven children but the only Jew. I did not understand why as a Christian I prayed to three things when there is only one God, he said. I asked my father and he said not to worry but to pray to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and my prayers would be answered. Intrigued by his fathers response, Ezra sought more information and eventually converted to Judaism. Although he had never used a computer before coming to Mumbai, Ezra said he found the computer course easy because the teacher is good and I find it easy to understand him. When he finally gets to Israel, Ezra wants to join the army as a medic. I want to help defend the country because it is surrounded by enemies, he said. ORT India Director Benjamin Isaac said it was very satisfying for everyone at ORT to be involved in the pre-aliyah programme. The Bnei Menashe are lovely, lovely people; very good people, Mr Isaac said. They are simple, straightforward people with such sweetness in their hearts. They will be a credit to Israel. He noted that group members had found a self-confidence which was not apparent when they were new in Mumbai. They started out as shy and frightened and some of them were uncertain whether they would make the grade. But as they have spent time here they have become more open and confident. I think they will fit into Israeli society very well by the time they have been with us for a year. The Principal of Kfar HaNoar Hadati, Benny Hadad, agrees. While the boys studying at his institution have had to overcome a great many challenges, not least learning the language and catching up with their peers educational level, Mr Hadad said they were making superb progress. They are very highly motivated and work very hard, he said. My teachers spend many extra hours with them after classes and they have nearly caught up with the other students. I am sure that over the next two or three years they will finish at the same level as their peers or even higher. The Bnei Manashe boys are among the nearly 500 students who live at the education village, which was founded in 1937 as a school for children escaping European persecution and has developed into a refuge for immigrants, orphans, children at risk and students from impoverished families. Mr Hadad said the pre-aliyah programme had been of immense value. I am sure it helped them by helping to prepare them for life in Israel so what they found here was not a shock for them. They had a foundation on which to build. Without World ORTs support they would have been farther behind everyone else, less motivated and we could have ended up losing them, he said. The students currently going through the programme in Mumbai expressed heartfelt gratitude to the donors who had made their programme possible. I am really, really grateful to them because they have given a huge amount of money just to make something of us, Levona said. They do not even know us but they are selflessly giving money in a way that can help us in our future. They help to give us new hope in our lives. Arielah added: I am very thankful that they have given me a new life. Before I came here I did nothing. Now, with their support, I will be able to support myself. I would really like to meet them one day and thank them personally.