He grew up in northeastern India, a descendant of what is believed to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
Today he is a yeshivah student cum athlete extraordinaire, Israel’s new kickboxing champion who will soon be representing the Jewish state in international competitions.
Meet 28-year-old Obed Hrangchal.
Hrangchal’s entryway into the world of sports began when, as a boy of 6, he became excited by martial arts, inspired by watching movies such as “The Karate Kid” on television.
With no sports infrastructure in his village, Hrangchal improvised. He made a punching bag out of a used rice bag that he would fill with earth or sand. He used to punch newspaper wrapped around tree bark to harden his fists.
The only Jewish family in a village in the Indian state of Mizoram, the Hrangchals sold their home and farm to move to the capital city of Aizawl, a couple of hundred miles away, to be close to the Jewish community while awaiting an opportunity to make aliyah.
“My father felt that it was not enough to practice religion and that Eretz Yisrael was the only land for the Jewish people,” he told JNS in an interview his week.
After years of practice on his own and with a group of high school friends, including his future brother-in-law, Hrangchal began training with a mixed martial arts instructor when he was in his late teens. He began competing in various martial arts including Chinese kickboxing or Wushu, where he won a state medal, Thai kickboxing, karate and kickboxing.
All the while, Hrangchal avoided competitions on Shabbat as much as he could.
Moving to Israel
The opportunity to make aliyah came on Christmas Day 2020, when he and his parents were among a group of 230 Bnei Menashe, Hebrew for the Children of Menashe, who immigrated right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with the help of the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization.
“My first year was a mess,” he confesses, describing a journey typical of immigrants to Israel.
He went from an absorption center in the coastal city of Netanya to the Galilee town of Nof Hagalil (formerly known as Upper Nazareth), where his parents live, to the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, to the hesder yeshivah in the Upper Galilee city of Ma’alot, where one of his rabbis studied Chinese martial arts and Chinese medicine.
During this time, the religiously-observant Hrangchal mixed his studies with work as an assembly worker at a factory, all the while keeping up his outdoor sports practice. He also started practicing with two yeshivah friends, an American and an Indian who is about to enlist in the IDF.
“I would practice alone in a park or any place where I could fight,” he said.
Return to the gym
One afternoon in Ma’alot, during a break in studies, he was practicing kickboxing outdoors—this time using a pillow instead of newspapers he had as a child—when a woman approached him and told him he was doing a great job and should join a gym.
Hrangchal thought it over and then connected with a gym, where he began training about two months ago.
In early March, he became the Israeli champion, competing in the 57 kg. (125 pounds) division against members of clubs from around the country in Kfar Yasif, in the Galilee. He will represent Israel in the Athens Challenge competition in Greece on April 28-30.
“Obed is a well-liked guy with an extraordinary sporting talent who trains very hard,” said David Ramon, Hrangchal’s coach at the Ramon Gym Club in Ma’alot. “I have no doubt that a bright future awaits him.”
With his yeshivah off for Passover week and the international competition looming, Hrangchal is training three hours a day—an hour on his own and two hours with his coach. His own training session includes a 20-minute run, a minimum of 80 pull-ups, 100 sit-ups and 5 minutes of skipping rope.
He stopped lifting weights, saying that when your muscles grow your speed decreases.
“Of course it is my dream to represent Israel on the international level,” Hrangchal said.
The yeshivah student cum athlete is looking for a sponsor to cover his travel to Greece, and is getting his Israeli passport, said Tzvi Khaute, the director of the Menashe Aliyah and Absorption Center.
“We are very proud of Obed’s incredible accomplishment and we look forward to his representing Israel abroad,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “He is another outstanding example of how the Bnei Menashe can contribute to Israeli society, each in his or her own way.”
The lost tribe
The Bnei Menashe claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 2,700 years ago. Their ancestors are believed to have wandered through Central and South Asia for centuries before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout the centuries, they continued to practice Judaism, including observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher and celebrating the festivals.
More than 5,000 Bnei Menashe have immigrated to Israel over the last two decades, and an equal number remain in India, all of whom wish to make their home in the Jewish state, according to Shavei Israel.
Closing a circle
For Hrangchal, competing in the sport he loves on behalf of Israel is something of a closing of a circle.
“I always dreamt of making aliyah and becoming an Israeli champion,” he said. “I now dream of representing Israel in international kickboxing competitions.
The competition in Greece could earn him a spot on Israel’s national team in the Senior World Championship in Albufeira, Portugal, in November.
“My parents are real excited for me, even if my mom is a bit timid as she watches me fighting,” he said.