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Mazel tov! Subbotnik Jewish couple gets married in Russia

Israel and Elisheva enjoying their wedding meal and party.

Israel and Elisheva enjoying their wedding meal and party.

There is an old Russian custom to steal the shoe of a bride at her wedding. Then the bride or her family must “redeem” the shoe through a variety of different techniques. Sometimes “money” will be demanded. Other times, the shoe-less bride must perform some sort of “task” such as drinking several shots of whiskey. Invariably, the bride gets her shoe back and the party can continue.

It’s all in good fun – even more so when the festivities are part of the small but vibrant Subbotnik Jewish community in southern Russia – which doesn’t see a lot of weddings.

Serge (Israel) and Natalia (Elisheva) Zilnatzkov were married two weeks ago at the synagogue in Voronezh, which until the completion of the shul in Visoky, was the only house of worship for Jews in the area. Israel Returns’ emissary to the Subbotnik Jewish community, Rabbi Zelig Arasin read the ketuba (the marriage contract). Rabbi Avigdor Nosikov, the congregational rabbi in Voronezh, was the master of ceremonies and conducted the ceremony. Members of the community were present as well. After the wedding there was a kosher seudat mitzvah – a festive meal – along with dancing and more drinking.

We asked Rabbi Avrasin what kind of alcohol was on hand. “Vodka, whisky, rum and Samogon,” he said. The latter is a local homemade vodka so strong (it is 60-70 percent alcohol) that, when Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund tried it while attending a wedding in Russia several years ago, he commented that it might be better suited to removing old paint from a wall!

Israel and Elisheva, both in their thirties, are members of the Voronezh community. Elisheva has Subbotnik Jewish roots but needed to undergo a formal conversion prior to the wedding ceremony. For the past two years, Rabbi Avrasin has been accompanying the couple on their journey. This included frequent visits to Visoky, where Rabbi Avrasin is based. The new Visoky synagogue, which has been built over the past year with the help of your donations, is intended to support the Subbotnik Jews who live in the village. (You can read more about it here.)

Please join us as we say mazel tov to Israel and Elisheva!

PREVIEW: First pictures from November’s Bnei Menashe aliyah

Mother and son at Ben-Gurion Airport in November

Mother and son at Ben-Gurion Airport in November

The aliyah from India is back – the first of several flights, this one with 50 Bnei Menashe new immigrants from the Indian state of Manipur, landed last week. We have a few preview pictures – click here to see them.

Israel Returns staff is now in India preparing another 200 immigrants who will be arriving during the month of November. We’ll have more pictures and stories soon here on the Israel Returns website.

Aliyah from India: Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip

Elitzur Haokip and family before making aliyah

Elitzur Haokip and family before making aliyah

We continue our series of profiles of Bnei Menashe who have made aliyah in the past two years with Israel Returns’ help. The timing is especially meaningful: as this article is winging its way to you, Israel Returns staff is flying to India to bring 247 more new immigrants from Manipur to Israel. They will join the 413 other Bnei Menashe who have arrived in the last 12 months – the most ever in one year. As the Bnei Menashe pack their bags and head for the buses that will take them to the airport in New Delhi, let’s take a moment to say hello to Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip.

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Elitzur Seikhogin Haokip, 74, made aliyah in November 2012 after two long careers, first in the Indian National Army and then at the “All India Radio” station in Imphal, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur. The Haokip family were members of the Beit El synagogue in Imphal. Making aliyah with Elitzur were his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

“I was brought up according to traditional Manmashi customs,” Elitzur explains, recalling the path that led him to Judaism and then to Israel. Manmashi was the patriarch of the Bnei Menashe community – the name Manmashi is derived from “Menasseh” (that is, Menashe, one of the lost tribes of Israel) – and many of the customs of the Kuki people of Manipur who claim Manmashi as their ancestor are similar to those found in biblical Judaism. However, in the 1950s, when Elitzur was growing up, many Bnei Menashe had not yet made that connection.

Elitzur received a Bible as a youth, which he read “thoroughly,” he says. The more he explored the stories and laws contained in the Torah (the five books of Moses), the more he began seeing how “the rituals and practices of ancient Israel were related to our present Manmashi norms.” When he learned that Judaism was alive and well in the modern world, “I embraced it immediately, for I knew this was indeed the faith of my ancestor Manmashi and that the G-d of Manmashi was the G-d of Israel, the only true G-d in the universe. From that moment onwards, I have waited for G-d to send someone to bring us, the Bnei Menashe, back to Zion.”

Elitzur is writing a history of Manmashi customs and traditions, which he hopes to publish now that he is in Israel.

Aliyah for Elitzur is not only the culmination of many years of waiting; it is an opportunity for him to observe Jewish Law to the fullest. “To me, no matter how much I practice Judaism in the Diaspora, it is incomparable to a Jew living in the Land of Israel. And as long as I am alive, I want to serve G-d just as the Jews of Israel do.” He then adds, with a wry smile, “Perhaps it will also increase my chances of making it to olam haba,” – referring to the Hebrew for “the next world.”

Please join us in wishing Elitzur and his family many years of successful aliyah – right now, in this world.

Aliyah from India: Yoshi Thouthang and family

Yoshi Thouthang and family

Yoshi Thouthang and family

The Bnei Menashe aliyah is back! With G-d’s help, Israel Returns will be bringing 247 new immigrants from northeastern India during the month of November. This will bring the total number of Bnei Menashe who have returned to Zion in 2014 to 660, the most ever in one year! As Israel Returns staff prepares the Kfar Hasidim absorption center for the newest arrivals, we present a new series of profiles where we visit with some of the remarkable Bnei Menashe who have arrived in the last two years.

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At age 70, Yoshi Helkam Thouthang was one of the elders of the Beit Shalom community, the main Israel Returns community in Churachandpur, in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, before making aliyah last year. He lived together with his wife Esther, daughter Dori, son Yishai, daughter-in-law Yehudit and three adorable grandchildren, as “extended family” in the village of M. Songgel in the Indian state of Manipur. Yoshi already had two children in Israel, a daughter and a son, whom Israel Returns helped to make aliyah in 2007, so this family reunification after so many years was particularly joyful for the extended Thouthang clan.

When he was growing up, Yoshi felt something was missing. “Deep inside, I always felt something was incomplete with my faith. After I got married, I thirsted for a spiritual truth. When I met some of the early Bnei Menashe pioneers, men and women who were already devout practitioners of Judaism, I knew I had found the spiritual comfort I had been seeking for so long.”

From that day, Yoshi has lived a traditional Jewish life, reading the Torah regularly and doing his best to observe Jewish Law. “But there are certain obligations which can only be done in the Holy Land. I wanted to follow all of the halachot (Jewish laws) and fulfill all of the mitzvot (commandments), which is not easy to do in the Diaspora, especially in India. Making aliyah to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) became my burning desire. And Baruch Hashem (thank G-d), we have finally overcome those obstacles. We are here!”

Yoshi’s son Yishai is now in Israel as well. Yishai served as an Israel Returns Fellow in India, traveling between Bnei Menashe communities in Manipur to teach Hebrew and Judaism, with Israel Returns’ training. Unlike his father, Yishai was raised in a fully observant Jewish home. “Keeping in mind that we are the descendants of the Israelites, I always believed that someday we will return to our native land, Israel, for good,” Yishai says.

As a teenager Yishai says he wanted desperately to make aliyah “in order to join the Israel Defense Forces and fight for Israel. However, as time took its toll, I met my beautiful wife Yehudit. We married and are blessed with three lovely children.” Yishai’s goals have now shifted to the next generation. “My objective now is to bring up my children in an Orthodox Jewish environment in the Holy Land,” he says. “Words fail to express how thankful we are to Israel Returns for its endless support in getting us to this day!”

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Please watch this space in the coming weeks for more stories of Bnei Menashe who have made aliyah – as well as stories direct from India of Bnei Menashe who are on their way now to their new home in Israel.

If you’d like to help support Israel Returns’ momentous undertaking in bringing the Bnei Menashe home, not at some point in the future, but at this very moment, please click here.

A Chinese Jewish New Year

Blowing the shofar: Jao Chao (left) and Li Bo (right)

Blowing the shofar: Jao Chao (left) and Li Bo (right)

Dipping an apple in a bowl of honey and blowing the shofar are two of the most iconic images of the Jewish New Year. But those customs are nothing short of miraculous when they take place so far from Israel or other large Diaspora Jewish communities that they are literally on the other side of the world.

Take a look at the pictures here and you’ll see the familiar fruits, the unforgettable curl of the ram’s horn, and the Hebrew words Shana Tova – Happy New Year – written on the whiteboard in the background. But the faces may be less familiar.

That’s because this Rosh Hashana gathering took place in Kaifeng, China, where the small Jewish community celebrated the coming of the New Year with the same vigor as Jews in Jerusalem, New York or Paris.

Jews are believed to have first settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, in the 8th century, arriving there from Persia and Iraq as they made their way eastward along the Silk Route. In 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But, by the mid-1800s, assimilation had taken a heavy toll and the Chinese Jews’ knowledge and practice of Judaism had largely faded away. The last rabbi of the community died in the early part of the 19th century, and the synagogue building was all but destroyed by a series of floods, which struck the city in the 1840s.

All of which makes the dogged perseverance by several hundred Kaifeng Jews to maintain their Jewish identity that much more remarkable.

Over the years, Israel Returns has been assisting the community in their thirst for tradition. We have sent emissaries and teachers to Kaifeng; helped open a center and a new synagogue just off the historic “Study of Torah Lane”; sponsored the first ever community-wide traditional Passover Seder led by a Chinese Jewish immigrant to Israel (including a Haggadah we translated into Chinese); set up Torah classes in person and via Skype; and even brought a number of Kaifeng Jews like Yaakov Wang on aliyah to Israel (with more to come soon – watch this space for details).

Israel Returns is also translating portions of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s book “Practical Judaism” into Chinese. And next week will see the annual construction of Kaifeng’s communal sukkah for the holiday of Sukkot. Your support for our activities in China is always welcome: please visit our support page where you can make your donation securely.

So, when is a shofar not just a shofar? When it survives to be blown, loud and clear, with Jewish pride and joy, even in a location as remote as Kaifeng!

Here are a few more pictures from this year’s pre-Rosh Hashana celebration in China. Blowing the shofar in the picture above are Jao Chao (left, in the dark shirt) and Li Bo (right, in the white shirt).

Israel Returns emissary to Krakow Rabbi Baumol reports on our annual Polish summer seminar

Polish group on tour with Rabbi Baumol

Polish group on tour with Rabbi Baumol

At first glance the notion of a group of young Jewish Poles traveling to Israel during a war seems absurd. Who would come? How would they cope? What could they learn about Israel when the country is bombarded every day by rockets, indiscriminately spewing venomous daggers?

The answer each member of the trip will give is…an immense amount can be learned, and no one would think of going home. In fact two more Poles arrived in the middle of the trip, despite the rockets, despite the hardships of a country at war. At the end of the trip I spoke with several who didn’t want to leave!

Coping? Just fine! They were situated in Jerusalem, studying day and night while spending several days touring the country. I personally spent two wonderful days with them touring the Judean desert, the Jordan valley, the Galilee and spending an amazing weekend in Safed.

How does this all make sense? Two words should answer our query—Israel Returns! The organization is the brainchild of Michael Freund, an American idealist who made aliyah with his family to Israel years ago, got involved in politics (Deputy Communications Director in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), engaged in the business world, but for the last ten years has focused his energies on one mission—returning lost Jewish souls to Israel and the Jewish people.

Israel Returns is responsible for the return of Bnei Menashe, Jews from India; the Subbotnik Jews from Russia; crypto Jews from Spain; and many other hidden Jews all over the world. Israel Returns finds them, facilitates exploration of their Jewish identity and, ultimately, returns them to their homeland and to their people.

Poland has been one of Israel Returns’ projects for the last ten years. Rabbi Boaz Pash has represented the organization in Krakow for most of that time. Today, I am their emissary and it is an honor to work for such an organization.

For the past year I have been working in Krakow which includes teaching many Torah classes, leading a trip to Israel six months ago, and participating in Israel Returns’ summer seminar a few weeks ago. This trip is an important aspect of the Israel Returns’ educational component as the heavily subsidized Israel seminars endear participants to Torah, Israel and the Jewish people.

Having concluded my tour-guiding course, I was chosen to take the group on a tiyul on Friday, which would culminate in the old city of Safed for Shabbat. Two days in the summer, despite a war and intermittent falling missiles, were for us an adventure into the land, history and people of Israel. Here is a quick report on my time with the group.

Day 1

Climbing into Nahal Og

Climbing into Nahal Og

We began early in the morning dropping almost a thousand meters to the location of the lowest place on earth. We did not dip in the Dead Sea though; instead we hiked through a canyon called Nachal Og just west of the Sea. Nachal Og is a beautiful canyon which winds its way down from the mountains of Judea to the sea.

Millions of years of erosion and sedimentary deposits created a deep crevice in the land, opening it to magnificent depressions and narrow passageways. It was not a simple tiyul, though. For some it was a battle against fear and anxiety.

There are two or three areas where it is extremely difficult to climb to the next level and metal spokes are drilled into the rock, which makes for an adventure. But everyone persevered and conquered the terrain. After two hours of hiking in the early sun, we concluded just in time and boarded the bus and on to our next destination.

Driving on the bus in the Jordan Valley

Driving on the bus in the Jordan Valley

Driving up the Jordan Valley we learned about the geological formations on the eastern border of Israel, the children of Israel’s entrance point into the land (Jericho), the great monasteries built in the Byzantine era, and the Crusader fortresses (Belvoir) hovering over the mountains. Closing out the trip we reached Bet Shean, a Roman city built on an ancient Israelite city, which in turn was built on an ancient Egyptian city!

After a hike and a drive we were ready for the second destination of our trip: Nahal Hakibbutzim. Nestled under the historic Gilad mountain range (where Saul and Jonathan fought and ultimately died in battle with the Philistines), the waters rolling off the mountain gather in many intense streams on the way to the Jordan River. This area is so fertile that one Babylonian rabbi (Resh Lakish) considered this to be the Garden of Eden.

At Nahal HaKibbutzim

At Nahal HaKibbutzim

Unique throughout all of Israel, in which deep streams are sparse, this stretch of a bit more than a mile has water, almost five feet deep with a soft sandy, base, makes it a pleasure for both adults and children to swim in, especially on warm summer days. At different points we came across artificial “slide” which made for added fun.

Our next stop brought us to one of the four holy cities in Israel: Tiberius. The city, resting on the bank of the Sea of Galilee, was built by Herod Antipas in the year 20 CE in honor of Roman Emperor Tiberius, and it became the center of Jewish life in Israel during the Mishnaic Period (ca. 200 CE) and Byzantine era (324-640 CE).

Perhaps best known as the final resting place the Sanhedrin after being exiled from Jerusalem, Tiberius was also the place where Rabbi Judah Nasi compiled the Mishna, the city where the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled, and the place where Modern Hebrew vowels were constructed.

As a result of the thriving Jewish life and holy history of Tiberius, many holy rabbis are buried there. We visited the graves of Rabbi Akiva, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, the Shl”a as well as Maimonides and other Tannaimfrom the Mishna. Each site afforded us the opportunity to speak of these towering personalities and their influence on Jewish life over the centuries.

At the Arbel synagogue

At the Arbel synagogue

Although it was a Friday afternoon and Shabbat in Safed was next on the agenda, I couldn’t resist showing the group an ancient synagogue called Arbel. Dating back to the early Byzantine era, we were able to behold its original doorway made of limestone with a groove for a mezuza and we noted its direction facing Jerusalem. This short visit was our last stop before journeying to the third holy city of our day (Jerusalem, Tiberius and now) Safed.

Day 2–Shabbat

We arrived at Ascent Hotel with enough time to prepare ourselves for Shabbat and make it early to the Beirav synagogue in the heart of the Old City. Veteran followers of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, with sweet voices, no concept of time, and huge hearts invited us to sing, dance and spiritually rise to accept the holiness of Shabbat. That spirit ushered us into our Shabbat meal where we continued to sing and share Divrei Torah (words of Torah). I began to hear the stories of some of the young Poles.

Sandra is 21 and living in Warsaw. Until two years ago she was Christian; her family hid her Jewish identity from her and only through serious research and determination did Sandra uncover that not only did she come from line of Jewish women, but her great grandfather was the leader of the Jewish community! Today she is studying Judaism (as well as a towards a law degree) and is involved in the Jewish community in Warsaw. She loved her experience in Israel.

A similar story could be told by Olga, Daniel, Grzegorz and many others. What an inspiration!

Morning prayers (Friday not Shabbat)

Friday morning prayers

Shabbat morning we prayed, ate some more, sang a lot more, and some people rested. Then we met for a walking tour of Safed. There are three significant time periods in the Jewish history of Safed: the Crusader (beginning of the 11th century), the golden age of Jewish scholarship and mysticism (beginning of the 16th century), and modern Israel with the founding of the State.

We began our tour at the Crusader castle at the highest point of the city and then jumped almost a thousand years to discuss the miraculous victory of the Jews in 1948. Rabbi Avraham Zeida Heller (great grandson of Krakow’s Rabbi Yomtov Lipmann Heller), the chief rabbi of Safed at the time, remarked that the war was won with actions and miracles: the actions were the prayers of all the inhabitants around the clock; the miracle was that the Palmach fighters arrived just in time!

Winding our way downward we reached the holy synagogues of Safed, starting with the most important Jewish personality of Safed —Rabbi Joseph Karo. The author of the Shulchan Aruch and “Rabbi of all of Israel,” as he is known, Rabbi Karo’s synagogue is still functioning today and we were able to take a peek during the mincha service. Other synagogues included the Ar”I and the Alshich, as well as the beautiful Abuhav Shul.

We concluded our tour in a little alley called simtat hamashiach (alley of the Messiah). The atmosphere in Safed is very mystical with many Jews actively waiting for the Messiah to arrive every day. A story is told of Savta Yocheved, an old lady who all her life would sit by her windowsill and look longingly down her alley awaiting the return of the Messiah. She reasoned that it is not possible that the Messiah should arrive and not come through Safed! This reflects the very palpable feeling of elevated spiritual consciousness, which permeates the ancient city.

Dancing for Havdalah

Dancing for Havdalah

We returned for a wonderful seuda shlishit (the traditional third meal of Shabbat) with more songs and a wonderful melodic Havdalah filled with dancing and good feelings.

Our journey back to Jerusalem was quiet, each participant trying to internalize all that Safed provided. The trip would continue for another ten days but I would only meet them one more time, giving a lecture on the laws of Shabbat. I hope to meet this unique group of young Jewish Poles again, watching them grow in Judaism and love for the Land of Israel.

Jeremiah the prophet speaks to the Jews going into exile and promises them that there will be a reward for their efforts to return from the enemies’ lands. “There is hope for you in the end, says God, and the children will return to their boundaries.”

How fortunate are we to have Michael Freund and the Israel Returns organization to make the dreams of so many hidden Jews come true.

Israel Returns emissary to Poland helps family dedicate memorial to Jews from Wolbrom who were murdered in the Holocaust

Albert Narcissus and Rabbi Ellis in Wolbrom cemetery

Albert Narcissus and Rabbi Ellis in Wolbrom cemetery

Before World War Two, the population of the small Polish town of Wolbrom was more than one third Jewish. But, by the end of the Holocaust, the Nazis had murdered nearly the entire Jewish community of 4,500 people. Of the 7-member Narcissus family, only the oldest, 16-year-old Naftali, survived by fleeing Wolbrom before the Germans arrived.

The Narcissus presence in Wolbrom has not been forgotten. A few weeks ago, Naftali’s son Albert, who lives in Australia, flew to Wolbrom to unveil a monument commemorating the family’s roots in the town. Guiding him through the process was Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis, Israel Returns’ emissary to Katowice. (Wolbrom is 33 miles away from Katowice.)

Rabbi Ellis has been involved with the project from the very beginning, helping to translate the text for the memorial into Hebrew, overseeing where to place it in Wolbrom’s Jewish cemetery, locating family records, and arranging a tour of Wolbrom for the family during their emotional visit.

Rabbi Ellis presided at the dedication of the memorial, which took place on July 21, 2014. Coming from Australia were Albert and his wife Hedda, along with their children and grandchildren. Also attending was Steven D. Reece, president of the Matzevah Foundation, which helps maintain and restore Jewish cemeteries in Poland.

The memorial reads, in English, Hebrew and Polish: “In memory of Abraham and Chaja Narcissus and their loved ones Leib, Harszela, Hiller, Luby and infants, who died in the Shoah, and the sole survivor, Naftali. May their memory be a blessing and their souls woven into the crown of eternal life.”

Albert Narcissus’s grandfather, Abraham, was born in Wolbrom in 1895, the fifth son in a family that traded in grain for its livelihood. “Today is a significant day in the history of my family,” Albert said at the ceremony, the memorial draped by Israeli and Polish flags. “Today would have made my father very happy and proud, because it will ensure the continuity of the family. Without this gravestone, there would be no place that my family and future generations would be able to visit and understand what happened here.”

The Jews of Wolbrom were forced to live in a ghetto during the early war years. Another 3,000 Jews from Krakow arrived in town during this period, leading to severe overcrowding and dire conditions. Liquidation of the ghetto began on September 5, 1942, when most of the Jews were sent to the Belzec concentration camp. Those who remained – about 600 Jews, mostly the sick and infirm – were taken into the woods south of the city and shot by the Germans. By November, most of the Jews who had been hiding to avoid deportation, as well as a few members of the Jewish “police”  – numbering another 200 – were captured and killed.

Following the war, 300 Jews initially returned to live in Wolbrom. Most eventually emigrated from Poland to Israel.

Aliyah from India: Aviel Tongkhohao Hangshing – the oldest Bnei Menashe to arrive in Israel

Aviel Hangshing

Aviel Hangshing

In 2002, Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund and Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Shlomo Riskin, visited the Bnei Menashe in India. For ten days they traveled between villages in the Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram, meeting with dozens of Bnei Menashe community members and hearing their remarkable stories. Aviel Tongkhohao Hangshing was one of them.

An elder of the community in Kangpokpi, Hangshing was attending a question and answer session about Israel and aliyah. He tentatively raised his hand and Rabbi Riskin called on him.

“Rabbi,” Hangshing started. “I’m worried about something. I’m already 81-years-old. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it to Israel, and I haven’t done a formal conversion to Judaism yet. But I keep Jewish Law and do all themitzvot here in India. My question is: when I go up to heaven, will I get credit for them?”

Rabbi Riskin was moved to tears by the anguish he felt in Hangshing’s petition. “Of course it’s going to count,” the rabbi reassured Hangshing.

In the ensuing years, Hangshing became a key pillar of support to Israel Returns in India, helping identify which Bnei Menashe would be suitable for aliyah and serving as one of the leaders of the community.

But when the gates of aliyah from India opened again last year, Hangshing approached Michael Freund with a different question. “I am old. I don’t know when my time will come, but I feel I must make it to Israel before I die. Can you make it happen this time?”

On May 29, 2014, Aviel Hangshing landed in Israel, fulfilling a dream he has held for so many years. He arrived with his wife and two daughters, the latter both in their twenties. They are now living in the Kfar Hasidim absorption center along with some 300 other Bnei Menashe new immigrants.

Hangshing is the most senior Bnei Menashe to arrive so far. “The day after we came to Israel was my 90th birthday!” he says, proudly.

Except that the math doesn’t exactly add up. We asked Tzvi Khaute, Israel Returns’ coordinator for the Bnei Menashe in Israel, if he knew when Hangshing was born. “Well, he’s really 93,” Khaute says. “But in India, record keeping is not what it should be. And sometimes people will say they’re a different age in order to get a job.”

Whether he is really 90 or 93, Hangshing’s reunion with Freund was as sweet as the coconut milk Hangshing used to drink back in India. “He came right over to me and hugged me and said ‘thank you so much, now I can die here in the Holy Land,’” recounts Freund. “I said to him, don’t rush things! I want you to first live in the Holy Land!”

Hangshing’s journey to Israel was anything but straightforward. “As a child growing up in India, my family and I didn’t live in a village with other Bnei Menashe so we didn’t have any of the Bnei Menashe traditions,” he explains.

One night, however, there was a great thunderstorm, and Hangshing’s uncle suddenly ran out into the middle of the compound in the pouring rain, looked to the sky, and began shouting, “The children of ‘Manmashi’ still live!”

Who was this Manmashi? Hangshing wondered. As he began his research, he discovered that many of the ancient customs of the Kuki people who live in Manipur were similar to those found in biblical Judaism. Could the name Manmashi be derived from “Menasseh” (that is, “Menashe”), one of the lost tribes of Israel?

In 1991, Hangshing met Shimon Gin, the first Bnei Menashe to make aliyah. (Gin was tragically killed in a traffic accident in 2009. His brother Yehuda is among the first Bnei Menashe to receive rabbinical ordination – we have a video profile of him here.)

Shimon Gin had returned to India that year to teach Hebrew and Judaism. As the two men got to talking, the pieces finally fell into place: Hangshing knew that the unspoken second part to what his uncle had cried out in the courtyard – “the children of Manmashi still live” – was “and we are the children…of Menashe.”

Hangshing is no stranger to Israel. In 1982, even before he realized his personal connection to the Jewish people, he visited Israel following the wedding of his daughter in London. “Israel was so different then,” he remembers. “There was a lot more land and open space. Now Israel is growing so fast. Wherever I go, I find big cities!”

Hangshing spent most of his career in the government, for the Indian Administrative Service. He worked in the education and health departments and retired as a commissioner of education for the Manipur region.

Hangshing made aliyah with his wife and two daughters. He has another daughter and three sons from a previous marriage who still live in India. One of those sons, a customs official now living in Mumbai, even visited Israel. “He stayed for two weeks and was very impressed.” While his son is interested in his Jewish roots as well, “it is very difficult for government officials to practice Judaism. They have a full time job. They have to work on Shabbat. I think when he retires from his service, he may come here too.”

Hangshing says that making aliyah was surprising to some of his friends back in India. ”Before I came, many people said to me, have you gone mad? You have money, you have two nice houses here in India. I told them, I don’t need any of this. The only thing that’s important is to follow G-d’s commandments.”

But for now, Hangshing is wanted at a birthday party thrown by his daughters in Kfar Hasidim. Whether he is 90 or 93, one thing is certain: he has earned the right to blow out his candles in the land of his forefathers.

Post army trek results in marriage…and new Israel Returns emissary to El Salvador

Rabbi Aboud with Bnei Anousim in El Salvador

Rabbi Aboud with Bnei Anousim in El Salvador

When Rabbi Isaac Aboud set out for Mexico in 1984 as part of the now standard Israeli post-army trek, he never expected to meet his beshert– the woman who would become his bride. But only a few days into his stay in Mexico City, he and his wife were introduced and the rest, as they say, is history – in this case with a little kick of Hebrew salsa.

That unexpected shidduch (arranged date) has resulted in another surprise benefit – this time for Israel Returns. Rabbi Aboud is our new emissary to the Bnei Anousim community in nearby El Salvador.

While he’s not moving from Mexico (he and his wife have 8 children and 12 grandchildren there), Rabbi Aboud will now travel to El Salvador for 12 days each month. His job is to teach Torah and basic Jewish Law to the Bnei Anousim communities in the country. Continuing the work of Rabbi Daniel Touitou, Israel Returns’ previous emissary to El Salvador, Rabbi Aboud is working closely with Eliyahu Franco, president of the Beit Israel synagogue in the capital city of San Salvador and head of the national association of Bnei Anousim communities in the country. There are four main Bnei Anousim communities in El Salvador, with the majority in San Salvador.

Despite living in Central America for the past 30 years, Rabbi Aboud never spoke Spanish growing up – he is a Sabra through and through, born and raised in Tel Aviv. The rabbi studied in a number of prestigious yeshivot before joining the Israeli army at age 18. He continued his education at the yeshiva of Yamit and then Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem before his fateful trip abroad at age 24.

After finding the love of his life in Mexico, Rabbi Aboud studied at the “Keter Torah” kollel (a yeshiva for married men) until he was 30, then returned to Israel to receive his rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Michael Perez. Among the rabbis who evaluated his candidacy were the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and his son Rabbi David Yosef.

Back in Mexico, Rabbi Aboud became the rabbi of the “Mount Sinai” community, which he served for 8 years. He also started a charitable organization called Chaim b’Chesed (“Living by Grace”), which is similar to Israel’s Yad Sarah, loaning out medical devices and equipment such as wheelchairs and crutches to the needy, elderly and disabled. The organization provides ambulance and transport services, all at no cost.

El Salvador is not Rabbi Aboud’s first posting outside Mexico: for two years he traveled regularly to Peru, giving seminars to the small Jewish community there.

Rabbi Aboud came to Israel Returns’ attention through Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, Israel Returns’ Educational Director, who visited Mexico 10 years ago. Rabbi Birnbaum and Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund made the long journey to El Salvador just over a year ago, in May 2013, which led to a subsequent emphasis by the organization on providing assistance and services to the Bnei Anousim there. The two asked Rabbi Aboud if he would be interested in continuing that work from a jumping off point more local than Israel; he immediately welcomed the opportunity.

Ever eager to find new ways to serve the Jewish community, Rabbi Aboud has written several books in the last 20 years. His first two were in Hebrew – a book of commentaries on the Mesilat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just,” an ethical text written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in 1738) and a two book set (part of a 20-volume encyclopedia) profiling some of the great rabbis in early Talmudic times. Rabbi Aboud published his first book in Spanish last year; he is now working on a new book that will deal with the questions of evil and divine justice.

Please join us in welcoming Rabbi Aboud to the Israel Returns family.