Successful Absorption: The Shinlung in Israel

(Editor’s note: The Shinlung, or Bnei Menashe, who live in northeastern India, are believed to be descendants from the tribe of Menashe, exiled from Israel in 722 B.C.E.)

We were standing in a cabbage field closed by a large plastic roof and walls and asked to admire the crop that was almost ready for harvest.

“Our crop is a good one,” said Sharon Benjamin. The “our” tells the real story about how the Shinlung are being absorbed in Israel. They feel at home with their Israeli colleagues who have given them training, work, friendship, a Jewish environment, education, and attention to their family needs. The Shinlung spoke in Hebrew to their Israeli counterparts and in English to us. Their Hebrew is smooth and comfortable, much the way they feel in their aliyah.

How can it be? We asked Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, founder of Amishav, an Israeli organization that assists potential immigrants with Jewish roots, and the inspiration for Kulanu.

He said “It is simple: the first day of arrival in Israel is to celebrate and the next day begins work.” Rabbi Avichail in former years was a kibbutznik and he very much admires the “will do can do” method of absorption. And while performing physical work from sunrise to sunset, they follow an observant Jewish life which includes observing mitzvot, intense study and daily prayer.

It was Thursday evening just before 9 pm and Rabbi Avichail’s small dining room and adjoining living room were already overflowing with people who had come for his lecture. The rabbi spoke in Hebrew and occasionally in English to help us along.

There were pleasant introductions; it was very important to the Shinlung students that Kulanu recognized their contribution to the Jewish people and Israel. They were especially excited that night to read an article about themselves in a Kulanu newsletter. The stack of newsletters we had carried disappeared in seconds.

Among the Shinlung, we felt comfortable and awkward at the same time. Comfortable because we were in such admiration of the intelligence, skill, good cheer and sterling character of those we met, and awkward because deep in our hearts we felt they were more Jewish in their deeds and decisions than we had ever been. We urged them to keep good diaries so that Jewish historians will have an easy time when writing about their contribution to Jewish civilization.

Readers might recall that some prominent Jewish officials in the Israeli government think that you can’t really be Jewish and appear Asiatic. Although the Shinlung come to Israel as visitors and do not request absorption rights under the Law of Return or that they be recognized as Jews without prior conversion, the Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Absorption and Ministry of Interior are not friendly. This does not disturb them. They are in Israel and are warmly received by those they meet. Employers who hire them ask if there are more where they came from. There are; and we, in our very small way, have the honor of adding to the chorus of those who say Baruch Haba.