Finding their way home

Michael Freund brings members of “lost tribes” to LCW

November 13, 2013
Michael Freund with children from B'nei Menashe, a lost Jewish community in India. Courtesy of shavei.org
Michael Freund with children from B'nei Menashe, a lost Jewish community in India. Courtesy of shavei.org

And on the Upper West Side, they spoke about what they had in common: Both were members of “lost” groups of Jews who had returned to Israel and made aliyah.

They returned with the help of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), an organization founded by Michael Freund, a Jerusalem Post columnist who brought the two women to Lander College for Women-The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School (LCW) to speak about their experiences. The result was an engaging evening about what it means to be a Jew when holding to one’s tradition has been kept hidden for generations because of political or religious restrictions in the wider culture.

Both Haokip and Jin Jin recalled their parents telling them they were Jewish. Jin Jin was not allowed to eat pork, especially if she "wanted to be smart." Neither woman grew up in communities where there was a Torah, although they did manage to keep many traditions.

Haokip left a good job in India nearly a year ago to make aliyah. Today she lives in the north of Israel. Jin Jin has lived in Israel for nearly eight years. She is a licensed tour guide who specializes in dealing with groups from China, an increasing number of whom have visited Israel in recent years.

Freund founded Shavei Israel in 2002. But the idea to assist lost Jewish communities was sparked when he served as deputy communications director under Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1997. Members of the B'nei Menashe had written to the prime minister, claiming to be one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. They wanted to come home. This sent Freund on a mission in which he discovered that around the globe there were many "lost Jews" who wished to come to Israel.

"I believe we have a moral, historical and religious responsibility to seek out descendants of Jews around the world and restore them to our people," Freund said. “Through no fault of their own, many of their ancestors were taken from us against their will. If we now have a chance to bring them back, how can we possibly turn them away?”

Freund said that in these communities, members have maintained ritual practices over hundreds of years. The similarities they bear to Jewish traditions confirm their claims and beliefs that they are Jews, he said.

The presentation sparked a lively discussion among the audience. A few shared their own stories. One attendee, Eliza de Sola Mendes, told of how her family's origins were in Spain.

The program was held on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a “perfect” night for speaking about hidden Jews, Freund said, noting that many Jewish children in Poland during the Shoah were raised as Catholics after being put up for adoption by their parents in an effort to save them.

“There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to our people in Europe than to bring back as many hidden Jews as possible,” he said.