Tongkhohao Aviel Hangshing is not a name that you will find in the Bible. Hangshing, however, is one of the 5,000 Jews in the northeast Indian state of Manipur, an area the size of Washington D.C., between Myanmar and Bangladesh in South Asia.
The Jews here call themselves Benei Menashes. They say they are descendants of one of the ten lost tribes, the tribe of Manasseh, who fled along the Silk Road to India after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 721 B.C. In the Beith-el Synagogue in the Manipur capital, Imphal, visitors commonly see men with knitted skullcaps reading the Hebrew Scriptures.
In August, a delegation of Israeli rabbis led by Shlomo Amar spent a few days with the Benei Menashes, who have been practicing Judaism for more than 30 years. The rabbis are expected to issue a ruling soon on whether the Benei Menashes are Jews and thus have the right to return to Israel.
Hangshing says the group discovered its origins when the Bible was translated into the local language in the 1970s. Leaders found that the stories, customs, and practices of the Jewish people "were very similar to ours. So we thought that we must be one of the lost tribes."
Of the 300,000 Benei Menashes in Manipur, only about 5,000 have converted to Judaism. Most of the others practice Christianity.
At least 800 people from Mizoram and Manipur have migrated to Israel during the past decade. The last group of 71 people left for Jerusalem in May 2003. Then Jewish leaders placed the Benei Menashes on hold until their status under Israel's "right of return" could be confirmed.
The BBC also has a story about the Benei Menashes: India's 'lost Jews' wait in hope (August 18, 2004)
PBS's Nova did a special on the lost tribes of Israel.
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