This past Monday, as the Uzbekistan Airways flight began its descent to Tel Aviv, over 50 pairs of eyes looked out the plane's windows, anxious to catch a glimpse of their new home.
For more than 27 centuries, their ancestors had wandered in exile, clinging to the dream that one day, despite the odds, they would somehow be able to return. And now, at last, that age-old ambition was poised to become reality, as 53 new immigrants from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India came in for a safe landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Who says we don't live in an age of miracles? The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel exiled by the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE. Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so many centuries, the Bnei Menashe remained dedicated to their heritage, stubbornly cleaving to the faith of their forefathers. They observed the Sabbath and kept kosher, celebrated the festivals, practiced the sacrificial rites and even argued a lot among themselves, just as Jews have done since time immemorial.
Indeed, the Bnei Menashe never forgot who they are or where they came from, or where they one day dreamt of returning.
That fidelity is now being rewarded as their remarkable odyssey comes full circle and they make their way back to their ancestral homeland, the land of Israel.
THE 53 new arrivals constituted the first group of Bnei Menashe that Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and chair, has been able to bring on aliya since 2007, when the Olmert government inexplicably decided to freeze the immigration of these precious souls. But after five long and often lonely years of pounding the pavement as well as a number of bureaucrats' desks, we were able at last to persuade the powers that be to open the door once again for the Bnei Menashe.
In a unanimous and historic decision, the Israeli cabinet on October 24 passed resolution 5180, which formally restarted the aliya and granted Shavei Israel permission to bring an initial group of 274 Bnei Menashe back home to Zion. The 53 immigrants who arrived earlier this week were the first batch from among the 274, while the remainder will come here over the next month.
This is all being made possible thanks to some generous Jewish philanthropists in Europe and the United States, as well as some of Israel's Christian friends.
The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem is covering most of the cost of the flights for the immigrants, while Bridges for Peace and others are helping to fund their absorption.
The new arrivals will join the 1,700 Bnei Menashe who are already living in the Jewish state, and have become an integral part of Israeli society.
I HAVE had a lot of emotional and uplifting experiences over the years, but few can compare with those of the past several days, which I spent in India together with the Bnei Menashe as they prepared to make aliya. Though normally restrained and undemonstrative of their emotions in public, it was difficult for the immigrants to control their excitement and nervousness as the day of departure approached. At the Beit Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur, Manipur, an overflow crowd of worshipers prayed and sang with extraordinary intensity, led by their longtime hazzan (cantor), Shlomo Haokip.
"This is our last Sabbath in exile," one of the men told me, his voice choking with emotion. "Next week, we will merit to greet the Sabbath queen in the Land of Israel. It is a dream come true!" Later, on the bus ride to the airport, the Bnei Menashe burst into song, chanting the prophet Jeremiah's prediction (31:16) with ever-increasing intensity, "and the sons shall return to their borders."
Finally, many hours later, after the plane had landed at Ben-Gurion Airport and we emerged from the gate, the entire group stood as one, turned their faces heavenward and recited the Sheheyanu blessing, thanking God for sustaining and enabling them to reach this joyous day.
After being processed by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, they emerged into the arrivals hall at Terminal 3, where relatives and loved ones fell upon them, showering them with tears and a hearty welcome home. And then, in a remarkable scene, we all stood at attention and recited one of the most rousing versions of "Hatikvah" I have ever heard, as throngs of onlookers joined with us in serenading the Jewish state that made all this possible.
The return of the Bnei Menashe to our people is a tangible reminder of the power of Jewish memory to overcome all obstacles, and the inevitability of Jewish destiny to prevail. Let anyone who doubts the power of the Jewish spirit take a moment to consider the wonder of it all.
A tribe of Israel, once deemed lost forever, is lost no more.