Effort to embrace believers, from Burma to Uganda,
gains steam as response to demographic woes
The New York Jewish Week, October 4, 2002 issue
The Jewish community, here and around the world, equates demographics with survival, so it’s only natural that we obsess over our numbers. But we may be willfully ignoring a plausible solution to our ever-worrisome dwindling Jewish population.
Consider: Communal officials today are eagerly anticipating the latest findings of the once-a-decade National Jewish Population Survey, due out next week, to see whether there are closer to 5 million or 7 million Jews in this country and, perhaps more important, whether assimilation is up or down from a decade ago. The 1990 study found the intermarriage rate to be 52 percent, setting off a chain of intense reactions, from self-criticism over the loss of a generation, to renewed efforts to bolster identity through social and educational projects, to acknowledging the inevitability of the trend and seeking ways to increase outreach to the intermarried.
Bottom line, the fear is that if the Jewish population is shrinking, so too will our religious, social, educational and political strength.
In Israel, the concern is even more profound. Locked in a struggle with its neighbors for its very right to exist as a Jewish state, Israel is well aware that its Arab population, now about 20 percent, is increasing more rapidly than its Jewish numbers. It’s only a matter of time, then, for the Jews to be outnumbered. In a democracy that means in a few decades the Arabs could undo the Jewish state, quietly, through the polls, after failing for so many years on the battlefield.
For more than 50 years now, Israeli leaders have been preaching to us one message we don’t want to hear: aliyah. More than our money, they want us living in Israel; the best way to ensure the Jewish state, they say, is to fill it with Jews.
But if we’re not willing to emigrate, why do we and the rest of the Jewish world, consumed as we are with bolstering our numbers, turn a deaf ear to the tens of thousands of people — maybe far more — in India, Peru, Africa, Japan, Spain, Burma and other exotic places who claim to be part of our people and long to settle in Israel?
Many say they are remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes, a notion met with deep skepticism by historians, and some were converted to Christianity by missionaries along the way. But whatever their lineage, they identify now as Jews, pray in Hebrew and keep the laws of Moses, including Shabbat, kashrut, circumcision and family purity, often despite persecution from those around them.
Isn’t it time we took them seriously?
The fact is that in recent years their voices, and those of credible advocates, have grown louder. Israel’s chief rabbinate, a key factor in legitimizing Ethiopian Jewry more than a decade ago, has recently investigated and ruled favorably on members of the Bnai Menashe of India as well as a small tribe from Peru, and helped them through the formal conversion process. Hundreds of these people are now settled in Israel.
Supporters are urging far greater attention to these and other “lost Jews,” insisting they represent a credible resolution of the dilemma over world Jewry’s declining demographics.
Moshe Cotel, a local rabbinical student and active member of Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us”), a group dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people, says the prevalent Jewish communal response — or non-response — to these pleas is part racial, part economic and part based on a fear of diluting the purity of the Jewish people.
“It’s hogwash to lament the demise of the Jewish people when there may be millions of people who want ‘in’ and we refuse to deal with them,” says Cotel, who gave up a successful classical music career in his 50s to study to become a rabbi.
“There is a tidal wave of conversion to Judaism coming in the next decades,” he insists, “and we’ll either learn to surf or we’ll drown in it.”
With few exceptions, Cotel says, this issue is not on the radar of Jewish leadership. “I tell them, ‘Hey, wake up and get on your surfboard,’ but they tell me I’m hopelessly naive.”
Cotel was part of a bet din, or religious court, comprised of four Conservative rabbis (three from the United States and one from Israel) who traveled to eastern Uganda last February to conduct some 300 religious conversions for the Abuyadaya, a community of 600 native Ugandans who have been observing Mosaic laws for more than 80 years. (In 1919, a local governor named Semei Kakungulu, after studying the Bible, instructed his followers to adopt the laws of Moses. Though the group has dwindled, it has held to its traditions, in spite of discrimination, most virulently under Idi Amin in the 1970s.)
“These people are practicing Jews and we owe it to them to help them in every way we can,” says Cotel, who plans to return to Uganda in February to help in the conversion of another 100 or so of the Abuyadaya.
Hillel Halkin, a well-known writer and translator who has lived in Israel for three decades, has written a fascinating new book out about his growing interest and belief in the Bnai Menashe, a group of some 5,000 people in a remote corner of northeastern India who live as observant Jews, claiming a link to the biblical tribe of Menashe.
The book, “Across The Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel,” describes how Halkin’s skepticism was reversed after visiting the community, which began in the 1970s and has been guided for the last two decades by Eliahu Avichail, an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem. Over the years he has helped some 600 of the Bnai Menashe settle in Israel, where they underwent formal conversion. Another 100 arrived last month and more of their brethren would like to join them.
Michael Freund is a former New Yorker living in Jerusalem who has come to espouse the cause of the Bnai Menashe. A Modern Orthodox Jew who served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister’s office under Benjamin Netanyahu, Freund, after visiting the community, has agreed to succeed Rabbi Avichail as head of Amishav, the organization championing the Bnai Menashe.
He believes that groups like the Bnai Menashe and the descendants of the Marranos “constitute a large, untapped demographic and spiritual reservoir for Israel and the Jewish people.” And while Freund opposes outright proselytization, citing traditional Judaism’s hesitancy about such an approach, he says that since groups like the Bnai Menashe have taken “the first step in our direction, it is time that we reach out and help them as they undergo the process of returning to the Jewish people.”
“The distinction, of course, is a fine one,” he acknowledges, “but life is full of fine lines, and as long as we keep our eye firmly fixed on the line and do not cross it, then we will be able to accomplish great things.”
One of the legitimate concerns about taking in “lost Jews” is the possibility that millions of people with no ties to Judaism, living in poverty in a country like India, could seek to emigrate for Israel’s greener pastures. The concept is ironic, of course, in that historically, seeking to identify as a Jew or come to Israel was considered foolhardy, if not dangerous. Advocates for the “lost Jews” recognize that criteria must be established to prevent Israel from becoming overrun by immigrants, but say that is a far cry from dismissing those living as Jews, especially where there are too few Jews in Israel, or anywhere, for that matter.
Freund says there is a more disturbing factor at play in our reluctance to take seriously the claims of “lost Jews.” He believes many Jews have become “so cynical about their own faith that they find it difficult to fathom that anyone would want to voluntarily join the ‘tribe.’ ” As a result, he says, “we mock and minimize these people’s claims and convince ourselves they’re crazy or we’re crazy.” But after meeting with converts from around the world, he says he has been deeply impressed by their “sincerity, conviction and love of Torah and the Jewish people.”
“I think we need to cultivate this phenomenon rather than ignore it,” he asserts, advocating Orthodox conversion for those willing to undertake the process, to ensure full legitimacy.
The Israeli establishment has run hot and cold on these would-be Jews. At times the interior ministry has been reluctant to pursue various claims or issue visas, but this spring 72 new immigrants arrived in Israel from Peru after undergoing conversion by a bet din appointed by Israels chief rabbinate. They joined some 150 of their brethren from villages near Lima who settled in Israel in the last decade.
Freund and other advocates would like to see the issue of “lost Jews” become a national mission for Israel and world Jewry, coordinated and carried out in a planful rather than haphazard way. Kulanu’s Cotel agrees, and in the meantime says he intends to be “a Johnny Appleseed, visiting Africa, India and South America to help educate these people Jewishly.”
With aliyah from the former Soviet Union slipping and no serious increase expected from the West, with Palestinians insisting on their right of return and a growing concern about Jews leaving Israel, we owe it to ourselves, as well as these highly motivated “lost Jews,” to take them seriously. That requires not only exploring their claims and practices but our own image of what it means to be a Jew.
At a time when demographers here debate the status of patrilineal Jews and half Jews and someone born of a Jewish mother who practices Buddhism, do we have a place in our hearts, and peoplehood, for a Ugandan tribesman or Indian farmer who prays to the God of Moses and Israel every Shabbat, longing for Jerusalem?
The answer to that question — and whether or not we take it seriously — may tell us a great deal about the survival of the Jewish people in the 21st century.
Gary Rosenblatt’s e-mail address is Gary @ jewishweek.org