• Photo: Shavei Israel

Finding hope and inspiration in India

Yonatan Birnbaum - 18 July 2023

“What is happening here is mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice).” That is how Meir Phaltuel, our Israeli emissary currently working with the communities of Bnei Menashe in northeast India, describes the overall atmosphere. And Meir is not a stranger by any means. He himself was living in these very same places he’s now visiting before he made aliyah in 2014. So, he knows the language, the people, the customs, the environment. And now he has embarked on a trip of 40 days, in order to provide support and strength to the Bnei Menashe communities; primarily in the cities and small villages in and around Mizoram but also in refugee camps for those whose homes were burnt down in Manipur due to the current turmoil in the region.

Meir Phaltuel during the remainder of the year, works as a Bnei Menashe coordinator for the municipality in Nof HaGalil where he also resides with his wife and five children. He reflects on his own journey of making aliyah to Israel over a decade ago as “a great miracle.” Now, returning to his native country gives him a new sense of appreciation of his own journey. “It’s a great privilege for me. My dream became a reality to make aliyah, and after 10 years, I get to go out and help my community, my tribe, my family.”

That doesn’t mean that his mission in northeast India is by any means simple. Finding a job for many of the Bnei Menashe members can be difficult because of their unwillingness to work on Shabbat and in some of the smaller villages, it can sometimes be difficult to find enough people to run services.

There are also the especially harsh challenges of those transferred to the relief camps in Manipur that Meir has had to embrace. He’s witnessed almost a dozen families living together in a single room and the food and supplies they have been granted are pretty basic. Making a fresh new start comes with the obvious obstacles after losing one’s home and possessions, but there is also an additional challenge of finding work since most of their legal documentation has also been lost. At the same time, finding a new home isn’t easy either as many landlords refuse to offer their space for rent to those from the region. “They’re very unfortunate,” Meir declares. “That’s all I can say.

Yet, despite the hardships the Bnei Menashe communities face, Meir simply can’t help but feel inspired. Even in the smallest of villages, they demonstrate a strong commitment to live a full Jewish life. “They don’t miss minyan or a Shabbat,” he describes, attesting to their dedication. The fact that they are occasionally mocked and ridiculed by some of their non-Jewish neighbors for their Jewish identity and practices doesn’t seem to factor in; “They simply don’t care.”

The members also have shown an incredible eagerness to learn and to take advantage of Meir’s visits and classes he offers. “If I am there (at a particular village) for 2 days, they won’t work for 2 days,” he exclaims. Indeed, it is rare for them to have such hands-on guidance from any sort of rabbinical or spiritual presence. Yet, these opportunities are by no means taken for granted, attesting to their unwavering love and dedication to Torah and the Jewish tradition.

Their love and connection to Israel is no less impressive. “‘When can we make aliyah?’” echoes Meir. “Everywhere I go….that’s the most common question I get.” Examples of this strong desire for aliyah is not age-bound, either. Often, he will be approached by enthusiastic kids as young as 10, already planning to learn Torah or to serve in elite army units when that magical time comes. “They want to offer something for the country,” Meir remarks. “…it’s moving, it’s amazing.”

Meir embarked on this mission with a clear purpose; to provide support and religious guidance to the various communities of Bnei Menashe in northeast India. Following the more recent tragedy in Manipur, this trip added a new sense of urgency, further highlighting its importance. However, there is another profound reason why this trip holds such importance. In the process of “giving back” and assisting those still in India, Meir has found himself deeply inspired within the communities he’s come to help. Antisemitism still is very much a reality in the world at large and it’s very palpable for the members of the Bnei Menashe. Yet, despite facing adversity, the unwavering commitment to their Jewish identity and their longing to return to the Land of Israel can provide a lesson for Jews around the world. “I am very grateful,” Meir concludes, reflecting on the opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the lives of his community.


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