And in Jerusalem dwelt of the children of Judah, and of the children of Benjamin, and of the children of Ephraim and Manasseh (1 Chronicles 9:3)
As the 94 Bnei Menashe men and women returned to their hometowns and families, following a 50-hour cross-country journey by bus and after already having been away for nearly a month, the Rosh Hashana holiday was quickly approaching. But rather than take even a moment to rest, these remarkable young Bnei Menashe leaders jumped right into action, the excitement of their 25 days of intensive study informing their every move. There were lessons to prepare, services to lead, and communities to inspire. Their jobs as the “next generation” of Israel Returns Fellows in India had now begun.
Israel Returns has just concluded its largest-ever training seminar for Bnei Menashe leaders. Incoming Fellows from all over India – from the states of Manipur, Mizoram, Assam and Nagaland – as well as two young boys from across the border in Myanmar (Burma), participated in the program which was organized and conducted under the supervision of Israel Returns’ Rabbi Hanoch Avitzedek and Tzvi Khaute, with Bnei Menashe Rabbis Yehuda Gin and Gurion Sela flying in from Israel for the entire duration.
Israel Returns’ emissary to the Bnei Menashe, Yochanan Phaltuel, was there as well, and he fills us in on some of the details. “The first week of the seminar was held in Gangtok, a resort town and the bustling capital of Sikkim, India’s smallest state. For the second and third weeks of the seminar, the group shifted to Yuksam, a smaller and more peaceful village.”
Yuksam is the last base camp for treks to Kanchandzongha, the highest mountain peak of India and the third tallest in the world. “The place is quite beautiful,” Yochanan reports. “You can just relax and gaze at nature and you will not even be aware of how quickly time flies by.” The Ban Jhakri waterfall just outside the village added a pleasant and persistent scenic backdrop. From their hotel windows, the group could “see the majestic Himalayas covered with snow in the clear morning skies,” Yochanan adds.
Not that anyone had time for much mountain gazing: a packed scheduled covered a wide variety of subjects on basic Judaism, including emunah (faith), halacha (Jewish Law), chagim (Jewish holidays), Shabbat, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (literally: “the laws which are the foundations of the Torah”) as set down by the medieval scholar, Maimonides; as well as a complete review of daily practical mitzvot.
The group did get out for at least one major excursion; to the top of a mountain that Yochanan reports was infested with leeches! “None of us had ever seen such a battalion of these blood-sucking crawling worms in our lives,” he reports, clearly still re-living the unwelcome surprise awaiting the Bnei Menashe trekkers. The group was undoubtedly happy to return to their studies at the end of that day!
There were some non-study extras, as well, including an arts and crafts session where the group got to create some homemade challah cutting boards (see picture below); a dance performance put on by the Bnei Menashe women; an afternoon of sports and physical competition (anyone for standing on your head? – see picture below); and even a magic performance complete with fire eating.
The Sikkim seminar was organized specifically to train a new cadre of Bnei Menashe Fellows in India. Many of the current Fellows either made aliyah earlier this year with the most recent group of 274 Bnei Menashe immigrants or are scheduled to move in the coming months, so “there is a deep sense of urgency in keeping the ember of Torah education and Jewishness among the Bnei Menashe community going,” explains Yochanan.
“The seminar is a crash course in openness and truthfulness for the new Israel Returns Fellows. In many ways, it is like the very ‘first’ seminar for the Israelites who came out of Egypt into the wilderness with Moses. Israel Returns is continuing the Sinai tradition down to the Bnei Menashe today.”