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.”