And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. (Ezra 3:1)
He likes hamburgers and schnitzel; she prefers spicy curries. He’s a Sabra (native-born Israeli) who grew up on a small moshav (a cooperative agricultural village) near the town of Beit Shemesh, and she spent her first 20 years in the remote Indian state of Manipur and could only dream of what life might be like in the Holy Land. But when she finally made aliyah with her Bnei Menashe family in 1999, it wasn’t long until Bat-Chen met Arik.
The rest is a starry-eyed, Israeli-Indian – and very Jewish – love story, bringing together very different worlds that are quintessentially all part of a single people. Israel Returns has been an integral part of the Itzhak family’s life for many years – with Israel Returns’ help, Bat-Chen is now training to become a dental assistant, through a program at Hadassah Hospital (we’ve written about this here). And her husband Arik works as Israel Returns’ account manager at Bank Leumi. So, when the family celebrated the bar mitzvah of their oldest son, Benayahu, Israel Returns staff were there to rejoice along with the family.
In 1999, when she first arrived, Bat-Chen’s concerns were much more mundane: she was in a new land and needed to both learn the language and find a job. Bat-Chen was fortunately a quick learner. She picked up Hebrew well and is fluent today; indeed, her rapid-fire delivery would put any native-born Israeli to shame. Nor was she picky about what kind of work she’d take. “I got a job cleaning at night while I studied Hebrew during the day,” she says.
She soon “graduated” to jobs working with children in a number of different kindergartens in the Jerusalem area. “We start our lives from small things, that’s the only way,” she explains philosophically. “We need to accept everything, whether it’s good or bad. These jobs allowed me to take care of myself for the first time, even when I didn’t know Hebrew that well yet. When you accept your situation, the future is bright and you know everything will be OK.”
That positive attitude helped Bat-Chen, now 35, advance even further. Eventually she trained to work as a nurse’s assistant in the neurology and orthopedic departments of the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem, assisting elderly Israelis. It’s a job she finds very satisfying. “I love it, really. It makes me very happy to help seniors; to give them some new hope in their lives.” Today she is working three days a week in her nursing position and studying at Hadassah the other days to take the next step in her career. She hopes to graduate next year.
Holding down a job and studying for a new career while planning a bar mitzvah might seem daunting for anyone, let alone a relatively new immigrant. But for Bat-Chen, being able to fulfill the mitzvah around her son’s 13th birthday in Israel has made all the preparations worthwhile. “It’s very difficult being a Jew outside of Israel,” she says. “Sometimes people called us names. We had very few synagogues back then [before she came to Israel in 1999] and no mikve [a ritual bath]. We had to study in a non-Jewish school.”
Bar mitzvah celebrations in India when Bat-Chen was growing up were, not surprisingly, very low-key. “In India, all we did was make a party for the immediate family,” she explains. “Here in Israel, we had 150 people present, from my friends, my husband’s friends and our synagogue [Kehillat Yaakov, which is opposite from the well-known “Little House in Baka” bed and breakfast in Jerusalem], followed by a big party. I was so excited for my son, seeing him put on tefillin [phylacteries] for the first time.”
Were there any Bnei Menashe customs at the bar mitzvah? Bat-Chen thinks for a moment, then shakes her head. “No, everything was very Israeli.” That’s not a concession. Indeed, she says at this point she feels “completely Israeli” – a striking testament to a highly successful Bnei Menashe integration.
How about friends – are they mostly Israeli or Bnei Menashe? “Who has time for friends!” she laughs. “I’m either at work, studying or at home, taking care of the children.” In addition to 13-year-old Benayahu, there is also a 5-year-old girl, Oriya.
Today, Bat-Chen cooks more rice and schwarma for her family than palak paneer. She radiates optimism and pride. From the time she was a young girl, it was clear her destiny would be with the Jewish people. “We knew we needed to come to Israel to truly fulfill G-d’s commandments. We didn’t know if it would be good or bad here but we felt the connection. Today I am so happy. Thank G-d, all is good.”