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.

Bnei Menashe rally in Migdal HaEmek in support of the IDF

Bnei Menashe rally in support for IDF in Migdal HaEmek

Bnei Menashe rally in support for IDF in Migdal HaEmek

As Operation Protective Edge continues in Gaza, the Bnei Menashe rallied last week to show their support for the Israel Defense Forces. 25 Bnei Menashe joined another 200 residents of Migdal HaEmek to wave Israeli flags, sing songs and recite psalms on a main street in this lower Galilee town in the north of Israel.

35 Bnei Menashe new immigrant families who had previously been living at the Kfar Hasidim absorption center moved to Migdal HaEmek with Shavei Israel’s help earlier this year.

Last week’s rally was organized with the help of Aviva Yosef, Shavei Israel’scoordinator for the Bnei Menashe in Migdal HaEmek. It was the first rally in Israel that the Bnei Menashe had ever been in, says Yosef. “The Bnei Menashe had a class scheduled at the same time, but they felt this was more important. Adults, teenagers, even the elderly came out. It was very moving for them. It gave them the feeling that they were fully part of Am Israel” (the Nation of Israel).

Although Migdal HaEmek is far from the front lines and no missiles have fallen there, its residents – like all Israelis – are connected to the fighting through their soldier sons and daughters. That’s true for the Bnei Menashe, as well: several Bnei Menashe have already been deployed to Gaza during Operation Protective Edge and a few Bnei Menashe boys will be inducted into the IDF in August.

In addition, most of the Bnei Menashe in Migdal HaEmek have relatives living in the southern city of Sderot, which has received the brunt of the more than 10,000 missiles that have been fired at Israel from Gaza over the past decade.

Aviva Yosef is part of a Garin Torani, a small community of young families who moved to Migdal HaEmek to strengthen its overall religious life. Yosef’s group has taken the Bnei Menashe immigrants under its wing. “We organize classes for them, Hebrew study, activities for the kids,” Yosef explains. “On Shabbat, we will do seuda shlishit [the traditional ‘third meal’ of the Sabbath] together at my house, as well as a monthly get-together for Bnei Menashe women on Rosh Hodesh” (the first day of the Hebrew month).

The active presence of the Gan Torani in Migdal HaEmek was one of the reasons Shavei Israel chose the town as an attractive location for the Bnei Menashe after they “graduated” from Kfar Hasidim.

Now in Jerusalem: Israel Returns’ 2014 summer seminar for young Polish Jews

Iga

Iga

Iga is in the process of converting to Judaism. In the meantime, she works with a Jewish youth organization in Krakow called Czulent (Cholent) – which is also the name of the traditional slow-cooked Jewish stew served on Shabbat day.

Martha didn’t have a Hebrew name but desperately wanted one. She told Israel Returns’ emissary to Katowice, Poland, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis that she is a big fan of the Israeli army. He gave her the name “Tzahala” which is related to both “army” (the acronym for the Israel Defense Forces in Hebrew is “Tzahal”) and the Hebrew for “rejoice.”

Damian has no documentation of a Jewish past but suspects he has Jewish roots. Why? His great grandmother’s last name was “Yehuda,” the oldest son of the biblical patriarch Jacob and one of the 12 tribes.

As Dymitr’s grandmother was dying, she revealed to her grandson that in the town where she was born there was a “tragedy” regarding the Jews. Dymitr began putting the pieces together. Did that mean that Dymitr’s family was Jewish too? He too is now researching his roots.

Martha, Damian, Iga and Dymitr are among a group of 21 young Poles with Jewish roots who on Wednesday will begin a two-week seminar in Israel sponsored by Israel Returns. The annual summer program is the highlight of Israel Returns’ activities in Poland, and this year’s contingent – which includes 15 women and six men from Warsaw, Krakow, Katowice, Poznan and Czestochowa – is 30 percent larger than the group Israel Returns brought in 2013.

The seminar, which mixes study, travel and home hospitality, will be led by current and past Israel Returns emissaries to Poland: Rabbi Ellis who heads up our activities in Katowice, along with Rabbi Avi Baumol, who now serves in Krakow, and his predecessor, Rabbi Boaz Pash.

Basia Wieczorek, who we wrote about previously and who subsequently made aliyah to Israel, will be the group’s counselor.  Yaakov Wasilewicz, who was born in Poland but moved to the U.S. to study in a yeshiva when he became religiously observant several years ago, is returning to help with prayers, classes and leading Shabbat zemirot (songs).

The group will be in Israel for two Shabbatot; one will be spent in the Kabbalistic city of Safed, and the other in Jerusalem. Israel Returns’ community Shabbat encounters are consistently cited as one of the highlights of the program.

The participants, who are all between the ages of 20-35, will have a chance to study in a Jerusalem yeshiva for a day, and of course will tour the country extensively: the itinerary takes the group from the north in Beit Shean and Tiberias, to the Dead Sea and Masada. In Jerusalem, the group will visit the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall tunnels in the Old City, Yad Vashem, Meah Shearim and Mount Herzl.

For most of the group, it’s their first time in Israel. Four participants are returning, including Olga and Katarina who we wrote about here.

Israel Returns sponsors and heavily subsidizes the seminar; program participants pay only a nominal “symbolic” fee. The total cost for the seminar, including lodging, food, touring and instruction, comes to more than $20,000. If you’d like to help defray some of these costs, please visit the Support page on our website.

Here is a video we made about a past program. Watch this space for more news as the 2014 session unfolds.

Bnei Menashe social worker Esther Colney follows a family tradition

Esther Colney

Esther Colney

If you ask a Bnei Menashe immigrant to Israel what the happiest day of his or her life was, you’ll often receive the response, “When I made aliyah.” For Esther Colney, who came to Israel from India with her family at age 15, it was an achievement that occurred a few years later that topped her list: receiving her high school diploma.

“When we made aliyah, I didn’t know a word of Hebrew,” she explains. “So to finish school and pass my matriculation exams, I felt like, yes, I made it!”

Helping other Bnei Menashe immigrants to “make it” like she did is now Colney’s life work: a year and a half ago, she received a master’s degree in social work from the Safed Academic College in Israel’s northern Galilee. Throughout her studies in Safed, Colney received assistance and support from Israel Returns. Today she has a caseload of some 50 teenagers – including, although not exclusively, Bnei Menashe – in a religious community south of Jerusalem.

It’s something for which Colney, now 30, derives great satisfaction. “When you receive something, sure that’s fun and nice. But when you can help people, it gives you a very special feeling, like you’re worth something,” she says. “When I come home in the evening after work, I’m just so happy.”

Colney is not the first social worker in the family: her older brother Itzkhak also studied in Safed and received the same degree two years before his sister. For the past year, he has been working for Israel Returns, providing counseling services for Bnei Menashe immigrants at the Kfar Hasidim absorption center, where the new olim live when they first arrive in the country.

The first group of Bnei Menashe have left the center already, relocating to their own apartments in the cities of Acre and Migdal HaEmek. Now Itzkhak is moving out with them: the Migdal HaEmek municipality has hired him as a full time social worker to handle Bnei Menashe cases. We have a full profile of Itzkhak here.

Both Esther and Itzhkak made aliyah from the Indian state of Mizoram with their parents in 1999. This was before Israel Returns was active and Esther Colney says it was tougher then than it is today for Bnei Menashe immigrants to find their way in Israel. “There was no absorption center, no social workers, no job assistance in those days,” she says. ”Fortunately, we were able to stay with another Bnei Menashe family that had come before us.”

Colney was a good student and picked up Hebrew quickly. After high school graduation, she performed her National Service in a home for seniors. “My supervisor was a social worker and I saw what she did and how she loved her work, helping people,” Colney says. “Until then, I hadn’t really thought of becoming a social worker myself, but after my brother enrolled in school in Safed, I thought, I could do that too.”

It didn’t hurt that her best friend Sonia Manlun – also a Bnei Menashe immigrant – signed up with her. Although they are both from India, Sonia is from the state of Manipur and speaks the Kuki language, while Colney speaks Mizo. “So we speak to each other only in Hebrew!” Colney says.

At first, the other students in Safed didn’t know what to make of Colney and her friend. “They wouldn’t believe we are Jewish. They’d think we were from China or Japan,” she recalls. “That was hard. We came here to live fully Jewish lives and it’s not so nice to get reactions like this. But the thing about Israelis is, once they get to know you, they treat you like Israelis very quickly. Today I have many friends – both native-born Sabras and Bnei Menashe.”

The classes Colney took towards her degree prepared her for more than just the specifics of the work she would be doing. She also learned a lot about her place in the multicultural melting pot of modern Israeli society. “We had classes where we would learn about all the different cultures in Israel – Ethiopian, Russian, ultra-Orthodox,” she says. “After a while, I didn’t feel so different. Studying actually made me feel more a part of Israeli society.”

Colney’s parents always knew they were Jews and they joined the Bnei Menashe community in Aizawl, the capital city of Mizoram when she was 5 years old. Her brother, then 9-years-old, was circumcised at that time, and the family did its best to live according to Jewish Law, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath and Jewish holidays.

It wasn’t always easy. At school parties, pork was usually served, which Colney wouldn’t eat. And her classmates were sometimes cruel. “Some would say that I was going straight to hell,” she recalls. “But it didn’t really hurt me, because I had friends who supported me and a big family. I was proud to be Jewish. And most important, I knew we would be making aliyah soon.”

“Soon” turned out to take longer than she expected. “We talked about it in our family for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Year after year passed. After ten years of thinking about it, we finally came.”

Colney has been back to visit only once since moving to Israel. She was 19 and said she “felt like a stranger there. I still have friends and family in India, but I now feel more connected to Israel. It actually feels really good – to know where you belong. The same thing will happen with the new immigrants – after 2-3 years, they will stop missing India, too.”

One thing Colney stopped missing almost immediately was Indian food. “My brother will tell you that I don’t eat any of the food my mother makes!” she laughs. “I like falafel, schnitzel, spaghetti and frankfurters” more than traditional Indian curries.

The Bnei Menashe teenagers that Colney works with in her role as a social worker have similar clashes with their parents – but it goes beyond just different culinary preferences.

“Especially with Bnei Menashe teens that are born in Israel, they have half the culture of India and half the culture of Israel and they really don’t know how to act,” she explains. “They are always asking ‘who am I?’ And they get frustrated with their parents for not knowing Hebrew, for not being able to help them the way that other parents can help their children with their schoolwork. Sometimes they almost switch roles, because of their parents’ language difficulties.” These are just a few of the issues Colney addresses in her work.

Colney has been very focused since she came to Israel: learning Hebrew, graduating from high school, studying in a women’s religious seminary (she learned at Jerusalem’s Machon Ora after finishing her National Service) and of course her four years of social work courses in Safed. “I was so busy, I never had time for a boyfriend,” she says. “Now that I’ve started working, I can finally think about dating!”

Indeed, her biggest dream, she says, is that “now that G-d has given me everything I need, I want to establish a family – a Jewish family – in Israel. ” She pauses, then adds, “I also want to be successful in my job, to be able to help my community…because they need a lot of help.”

With Esther Colney and her brother Itzkhak serving the Bnei Menashe, it’s clear that help is on its way. And for Esther, we have no doubt that love will surely follow.

Michael Freund: The Indiana Jones of “Lost Jews”

Michael Freund in Subbotnik Jewish village in Russia

Michael Freund in Subbotnik Jewish village in Russia

The Jewish Voice newspaper ran an in-depth profile of Israel Returns Founder and Chairman Michael Freund this past week, calling him the “Indian Jones of ‘Lost Jews.’” We have the article, written by Ariella Haviv, for you here.

For the past 15 years, Michael Freund has been leading a quiet and unflagging revolution, one that is transforming how the Jewish world relates to descendants of the people of Israel.

A former New Yorker who made aliyah in 1995, Freund’s peripatetic adventures have taken him from the jungles of northeastern India to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to small villages in the southern Italian countryside, driven by a remarkable sense of mission: to reconnect lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities with their roots.

“Some people travel the world to see beautiful vistas or breathtaking scenery,” Freund says, “but I go to search for Jews.”

Through the organization that he founded and chairs, Israel Returns, Freund – a Princeton graduate with an MBA from Columbia University’s Business School – has succeeded in bringing thousands of souls back to the Jewish people, ranging from Chinese Jews to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors.

And it all started with an innocuous orange envelope.

In 1996, barely a year after Freund had moved to Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed him to serve as Deputy Communications Director during his first term of office.

In the Spring of 1997, a letter arrived to Netanyahu from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India, who claim descent from a lost tribe of Israel, requesting to return to Zion after more than 2,700 years of exile.

“I remember opening the battered letter – it was in a crumpled, orange envelope – and reading it with a mix of incredulity and surprise,” he recounts.

At first, Freund says, he thought it was “nuts”. But something about the appeal touched him, so the young aide penned a polite reply. Subsequently, he learned that, “the Bnei Menashe had been writing to Israeli prime ministers since at least Golda Meir, and probably since Ben-Gurion and the founding of the State of Israel, but they had never received an answer.”

After meeting with Bnei Menashe community members and learning more about their history, traditions and customs during a visit to India, Freund became convinced that they are in fact descendants of the Jewish people.

“As peculiar as it might sound, after carefully studying the matter I became persuaded regarding the historicity of their claim. I believe the Bnei Menashe are in fact descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel,” he says.

But Freund didn’t suffice himself with historical musings. Instead, he moved quickly to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and stubbornly persisted, overcoming various obstacles until he was able to obtain permission from Israel’s Interior Ministry to allow large groups of Bnei Menashe to make aliyah.

When Netanyahu left office in 1999, Freund says he began to think more broadly about the question of descendants of Jews and their relationship with the State of Israel and the Jewish people. That is when he began embarking on visits to various far-flung communities, earning him the nickname “the Indiana Jones of lost Jews”. His journeys, he says, led to him to two important conclusions. The first was “that there are enormous numbers of people around the world with an historical connection to the Jewish people who are still conscious of that link”.

No nation, he insists, “has been exiled, persecuted, massacred and forcibly converted like the Jews have throughout the ages, so it is only natural that we would find remnants or traces of Jews across the globe.” The second realization was that, “something needs to be done to engage descendants of Jews and forge closer ties with them.”

This prompted Freund to establish Israel Returns, which has grown rapidly over the past decade and now works with a variety of communities in more than 15 countries.

These include: the Bnei Menashe of India; the Bnei Anousim (or “Marranos”) in Spain, Portugal, southern Italy and South America; the Subbotnik Jews of Russia and the former Soviet Union, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, China; the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the Holocaust era and others.

In 2007, after the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an unexpected halt to the Bnei Menashe aliyah, Freund launched an intensive lobbying campaign. He spent the next five years nudging, cajoling and pushing to get the aliyah restarted, meeting with Government ministers, Knesset members and other public officials.

His commitment bore fruit in October 2012, when the Israeli government voted unanimously to resume the Bnei Menashe aliyah, granting Israel Returns the right to bring 274 immigrants to the Jewish state. Freund arranged for their arrival in December 2012-January 2013, covering all the costs involved. In October 2013, the Israeli cabinet passed an additional resolution allowing another 900 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel in 2014-15. The first batch of 160 made aliyah in January, and another 250 are arriving this month.

All told, thanks to Freund’s dedication over the years, there are now some 2,200 Bnei Menashe living in the Jewish state. All have undergone formal conversion by the Chief Rabbinate and received Israeli citizenship.

“I made a promise,” he says, “to the Bnei Menashe that I will not rest until the remaining 7,000 community members in India are able to make aliyah. And it is a promise I intend to keep.”

In addition to his success with the Bnei Menashe, Freund chalked up another achievement this year when he succeeded in persuading Israeli government officials to open the door to the Subbotnik Jews of Russia and the former Soviet Union.

“The Subbotnik Jews are descendants of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism more than two centuries ago under the Czar and were then persecuted ruthlessly by the Nazis and the Communists for their adherence to Judaism,” Freund explains.

“Some 15-20,000 Subbotnik Jews currently reside in the former Soviet states. For more than a century, they had been making aliyah without a problem, until suddenly, in 2005, Israeli officials inexplicably decided to shut down their immigration”, he adds.

Over the following nine years, Freund lobbied on their behalf, and in March of this year, the Absorption Ministry agreed to work for the resumption of their aliyah. The Israeli government is slated to approve a decision soon that will formally enable the Subbotnik Jews to come home to Jerusalem.

In Poland, Israel Returns currently has rabbinical emissaries serving in Krakow and Katowice, where they work with the growing number of young Poles who have been discovering their families’ Jewish roots, which were often concealed after the Holocaust.

Last year, on the eve of Yom HaShoah, Freund organized a special Shabbaton and weekend seminar in the Polish town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) for dozens of young Poles with Jewish roots from around the country. It was the first time since World War II that such an event occurred.

In other locales, such as Spain, Portugal, Colombia and Sicily, Israel Returns has rabbinical emissaries working with Bnei Anousim, whose Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries.

And the organization also runs Machon Miriam, a Spanish, Portuguese and Italian-language conversion and return institute in Jerusalem, the only one of its kind.

Freund devotes himself full-time to Israel Returns, but he does so as a volunteer, refusing to take a salary. Moreover, he and his extended family fund about half of the organization’s annual budget, and Freund then raises the rest from supporters worldwide.

“I think it is imperative that Israel and the Jewish people reach out to descendants of Jews in a concerted fashion,” he says. “It is not just about conversion and aliyah. The moment someone discovers or rediscovers their Jewish roots, it naturally makes them more sympathetic to Israel and Jewish causes,” Freund points out, adding that, “It is therefore in our collective interest to strengthen the bonds with those whose forefathers were once part of our people.”

Israel Returns emissary inaugurates first “Ride for the Living” in Poland

Biking through Poland

Biking through Poland

In 1909, Robert Desmond’s grandparents left their home and family in the small shtetl village of Chernigov, just north of Kiev in Ukraine, and moved to the United Kingdom. It would prove to save their lives, as they escaped the atrocities that would decimate Jewish life in Eastern Europe in the decades to come.

Some 100 years later, in October 2013, Desmond, a London-based software engineer, marathon runner and avid long distance cyclist, embarked on a modern day roots pilgrimage. He set out on his bicycle to trace what he called his family “liberation path” – in reverse – from London down to the Normandy D-Day landing beaches in France across to Paris, into Germany and then to the Czech Republic before finishing up at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Following his 1,350-mile month-long journey (which he blogged about here), Desmond ended up in Krakow where he met and became fast friends with Israel Returns’ emissary there, Rabbi Avi Baumol. Over many Shabbat meals and sessions learning Torah together with the community, Desmond began to appreciate the remarkable revitalization of Jewish life that is taking place in Poland today. He wanted to demonstrate to the world what was happening. And how better to do that than once again through bike riding?

Desmond and Rabbi Baumol got together with Krakow JCC director Jonathan Ornstein and came up with a plan: they would create a new cycling event, this time not to Auschwitz but from it – back to Krakow, ending up at the Jewish Community Center there which, under Rabbi Baumol’s stewardship, has become the focus of the city’s dynamic Jewish life. They called it “The Ride for the Living” a variant on the long standing “March of the Living” that also takes place at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

The 50-mile ride from Auschwitz to Krakow took place on Friday, June 6 and Rabbi Baumol and Desmond were joined by another 15 riders, including a group that Desmond brought from London, local members of the Krakow JCC, and a small contingent from the U.S. An online fundraising campaign was held to support a trip to Israel for senior members of the JCC.

The day began with a ceremony at 11:30 am in front of the gates of Birkenau at which Rabbi Baumol, several members of the Jewish community, and the Deputy Director of the Auschwitz museum spoke of the significance of this first-of-its kind event.

“Millions of visitors made their way to Auschwitz by planes, trains and automobiles,” Rabbi Baumol writes, “but we were the first to mark the return in a Ride for Life, symbolizing the indefatigable spirit of the Jewish people—you can break our bones, destroy our communities and seek to eradicate our memories but we will still survive, we will continue to build.”

Rabbi Baumol recited two prayers before setting off on the ride: baruch dayan ha’emet, honoring the memory of the past, as well as the Tefilat Haderech prayer to G-d for guidance on future journeys.

“The ride was lovely with the countryside flat and the weather perfect,” Rabbi Baumol continues. “Each rider managed the 55 mile journey back to the JCC…back to life in Krakow. We all learned that we have the physical capacity to make such a journey and, as the sun set and we joined for prayer and Shabbat dinner, we understood the importance of our message.”

On Saturday night following the ride, Krakow celebrated “7@nite,” an annual event in which thousands of mostly non-Jewish Poles come to Krakow to walk around the seven synagogues, which are still open in the city’s central Kazimierz district. The evening began with a havdalah service conducted by Rabbi Baumol on the rooftop of the Krakow JCC. Rabbi Baumol later gave a midnight lecture on the “symbols of the synagogue” – a hundred people showed up, he reports.

Rabbi Baumol and Desmond plan to turn the “Ride for the Living” into an annual event and hope that next year the number of riders will be triple that of the inaugural journey. Rabbi Baumol says that the aim is quite simple, yet incredibly important: “to spread the message that we must always commemorate the hell that is Birkenau and the souls who perished there, it must never be our final resting place. The Jewish journey will never stop at death but will return from there, not in cattle-cars led by others, but with our own two feet, riding ourselves to freedom and restored Jewish life in Poland.”

The aliyah resumes: 80 Bnei Menashe arrive in Israel

Bnei Menashe girl from Manipur at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel

Bnei Menashe girl from Manipur at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel

We have exciting news to share with you: the aliyah of the Bnei Menashe from India is once again under way. Just four months after bringing 160 Bnei Menashe to Israel, Israel Returns has now started to bring the next group of 250 community members home to the Jewish state.

Over the past week, 80 Bnei Menashe have arrived, all of them from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, with another 170 slated to come in the next few weeks..

The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which were exiled by the Assyrian empire more than 2,700 years ago. Over the past 15 years, Israel Returns has brought more than 2,200 Bnei Menashe to Israel, and in October 2013, the Israeli government granted Israel Returns permission to bring an additional 900 Bnei Menashe in 2014 and 2015.

Upon the arrival of the first group of Bnei Menashe at Ben-Gurion Airport last Thursday, Israel Returns Chairman Michael Freund told the new immigrants, “Your arrival is part of the miracle of Israel’s return to its Land. Being an immigrant is not easy and you will face many challenges along the way. But always remember that the State of Israel is one of G-d’s greatest gifts to the Jewish people, and our generation is privileged to be living here.”

The new arrivals include Edna, a young woman who has been separated from her fiancé, Gamliel, for more than seven years since he made aliyah. In 2007, after Gamliel and 230 other Bnei Menashe moved to Israel, the government froze the community’s immigration. It was only restarted in 2012.

Edna and Gamliel’s reunion was particularly emotional, Freund says. “As Gamliel stood with Edna, he said to me he felt like our forefather Jacob who waited so long to marry Rachel.”

Freund also mentioned several other moving reunions in this particular aliyah, including a grandfather who had never met his four Israeli grandchildren, and two siblings who had not seen their sister who has lived in Israel for 21 years now.

Click here to see photos from Ben-Gurion Airport last week.