There are certain things in life that are hard to describe in words. Our day visiting the Bnai Menashe is one of those in my book. Words like memorable, unreal, amazing are thrown around by us to describe things that to others might not be so great. But I can honestly say that every one of the members of our trip was deeply affected by our visit to these remarkable people. I will try my best to describe it to you. One participant said to me, “This was the memorable day of the trip” and we haven’t hit the halfway point yet!
Let me begin with a little background about the area we were staying in- The state of Manipur. One of seven states of India, Manipur is home to 2.5 million people. There are 9 districts- 5 are formed by mountains and are home to the “tribals” who have little contact with the people who live in the other 4 districts which are in valleys. The majority are Hindu with 10% of the population being Christian. The Bnai Menashe are a very small population and are spread out amongst many small villages. We travelled to the main center in a village called Chuchampur which was a 90 minute ride from our hotel. In order to get us there quickly and without getting stuck behind any slow cars or cows, we drove in a convoy led by police and followed by the police. We were able to stop along the way to see the Loktak lake which is 15 square miles and is one of the largest freshwater lakes in NE India.
I don’t think any of us really understood what the Bnai Menashe were until we met them. We entered their shul and were literally astounded. These were people who believed they were descendants of Menashe and were walking around with yarmulkes and tzitzit! During an hour long discussion and question and answer session with them, we saw their very broad knowledge of Jewish laws and customs- from having tfilot three times a day to kashering their homes for Pesach. Ari and Ari introduced us to various members of the community and helped them explain their customs. Rivki presented them with a beautiful poster designed by the OU which was the Tefila for the Medina in Hebrew and 2 other languages. When word spread that these posters were being given out, one of the women approached us for more. We danced together with them around their shul and really felt a sense of connection and kinship with these special people. We may have met Bnei Menashe in Israel, but seeing them in their native villages gave us an entirely new perspective and appreciation of who they are and how much they can contriubte to the Jewish People.
We were very lucky that one of the members of Bnai Menashe who had made Aliyah to Israel was back visiting his family. He had gone through giyur and ulpan and was now serving in the Golani unit of Tzahal!
And then an amazing thing happened- the Chzan began to sing one of the songs composed by Bnai Menashe. He proceeded to sing (very beautifully) a song which describes their love of Zion called Katanya. They translated the verses and you really felt the power behind the words these people were singing. I hope a video of his performance will be posted (when we will post when we get a faster connection) so you can witness the tremendous sincerity that you heard in every word of the song. You can ask any one of us on the trip what impacted them most on this day and you might hear several different answers. For me, it was the song and the meaning behind the words and how it was performed with such sincerity – I asked myself how much of my Torah observance is as sincere as the dedication these people have shown. They are literally in the middle of nowhere and still manage to cling to an ideal that we (a lot of times) take for granted.
We then went to a different village which also had a Bnai Menashe shul there- the gabbai of the shul left work to meet us at the building. Their Sefer Torah looked exactly like ours but was written on paper! Yes, there was a Stone Chumash there as well! It was a simple building and the Gabbai told us their Shachrit service takes app. 90 minutes every day- all I could think was “Wow”. There was little interaction between these villages and yet even without a large amount of communal support, these small pockets of Bnai Menashe manage to keep going and even thrive. I can’t say enough about how we were impacted by this.
After a quick visit to the home of another of the Bnai Menashe and the mikveh in his building, we ate lunch and headed back to the hotel for some rest. Once again, we were treated to a great presentation by the Aris. They really have great stories and Torah to share with us and having the opportunity to spend time with them one on one has been really worthwhile after following their adventures for so long through their articles and website. We are really enjoying them immensely.
I know after rereading what I just wrote that I did not do this day justice. I encourage whoever is reading this to talk about what happened with anyone they know from the trip so they can get more detail of this fantastic experience.
INDIA TRIP DAY 6
Well, we just completed another intense travel day as we now have landed and settled in the city of Coimbature which really has the most Western flavor of any place we have been in so far. There is not much to tell about what we did today outside of sitting in airports and planes. Of course Ari G. made a new friend on one of our transfers which I will let the picture of the encounter speak for itself.
I just want to briefly mention a phenomenon I am witnessing over the last few days. A certain level of camaraderie which can only develop from shared experiences has enveloped our group. We are from different backgrounds and nationalities but are really coming together as we move along on this awesome adventure. As the days go on, you can see more people pitching in to help with all types of tasks which you don’t normally find on a “vacation”. It is a great feeling and I look forward to creating a stronger bond as we continue our adventure!
Ari and Ari are sharing their adventurous spirit with us and we are catching on quickly and loving every minute of it. We are really seeing how meaningful it is to visit Jews or people who would like to be Jewish and how much we not only can give to them, but they too give us –such chizuk.
See you IYH tomorrow!!