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Northeastern India’s ‘lost Jewish tribe’ celebrates Chanukah

Through the generations, the Bnei Menashe nourished the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors.

Ezra Janggousang, 3, lights candles with his family and community on the first night of Chanukah in Churachandpur, India, on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Shavei Israel.
Ezra Janggousang, 3, lights candles with his family and community on the first night of Chanukah in Churachandpur, India, on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Shavei Israel.

Hundreds of members of the Bnei Menashe community from across northeastern India gathered in Churachandpur—in the southwestern corner of the Indian state of Manipur—on Dec. 7 to light candles on the first night of Chanukah.

The Bnei Menashe, or “Sons of Manasseh,” claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were exiled by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. During their long sojourn in exile, they knew nothing about Chanukah and did not celebrate it. This can be explained by the fact their ancestors were exiled from the Land of Israel about 560 years before the events related to the holiday took place. It was only a few decades ago, after reconnecting with the Jewish people, that the Bnei Menashe embraced the holiday.

“The story of the Maccabees’ heroic determination to preserve their Jewish identity resonates strongly with the Bnei Menashe, who—against all odds and with tremendous effort—have managed to cling to their faith and that of their ancestors down through the centuries,” said Shavei Israel founder and chairman Michael Freund. “This Chanukah, everyone in the community is praying for the safety of Israel’s soldiers and the safe return home of all the hostages in Gaza.”

After their expulsion from the Land of Israel, the Bnei Menashe’s ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the borders of Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout this period, they continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, including observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, celebrating the festivals and following the laws of family purity. Through the generations, they nourished the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel.

So far, the Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization has helped make the dream of aliyah (immigration to Israel), possible for more than 5,000 Bnei Menashe and plans to help bring more members of the community to Israel. Currently, some 5,000 Bnei Menashe await their return to the Jewish homeland.

Members of the Bnei Menashe light candles on the first night of Chanukah in Churachandpur, India, on Dec. 7, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Shavei Israel.
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Shavei Israel is a nonprofit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in more than a dozen countries and provides assistance to a variety of communities, such as the Bnei Menashe of India; the Bnei Anousim (referred to by the derogatory term “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America; the Subbotnik Jews of Russia; and the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland. For more information, see: www.shavei.org.
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