Last week, less than a month shy of his 50th birthday, Lyon Fanai fulfilled a dream he had been nurturing for as long as he could remember. After an arduous journey across multiple time zones and spanning more than two millennia, Fanai and his beautiful family arrived safely in Israel, part of a group of 102 Bnei Menashe who made aliya from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.
And thus began Operation Menashe 2017, which was launched by Shavei Israel, the organization I founded and chair, in conjunction with Israel's Absorption Ministry.
With God's help, over the course of the next 12 months, we aim to bring another 600 Bnei Menashe back home to Zion, more than 27 centuries after their ancestors were exiled from this land.
Yes, despite the image put forward by much of the mainstream press, there are great things happening in the Jewish state.
Indeed, the normally bustling arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport was even more spirited than usual, as the immigrants emerged from customs and fell into the arms of loved ones they had left behind many years ago.
Menachem Menashe, who made aliya in 2006, was reunited at last with his sister, her husband and his six nieces and nephews, whom he hadn't seen in more than a decade.
A young man named Ariel was literally beaming with joy at the sight of his fiancé, who arrived with her family. They had not gazed into one another's loving eyes for more than seven years. Shortly, they will stand under the marriage canopy and finally be able to start a Jewish household together here in the Jewish state.
Notwithstanding the exhaustion that was visible on their faces, the immigrants broke into song, filling the cavernous hall at the airport with echoes of Hebrew verse. Energetically dancing in a large circle, they seamlessly went from singing "Am Yisrael Chai" into a moving rendition of the prophecy from chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah, "And the sons shall return to their borders."
Large blue-and-white flags were unfurled, and numerous onlookers joined in the festivities as the nation of Israel welcomed home these far-flung exiles.
The Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled from the Land of Israel more than 2,700 years ago by the Assyrian empire. Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so long, the Bnei Menashe continued to preserve the ways of their ancestors, observing Shabbat, keeping kosher, adhering to the laws of family purity and undoubtedly arguing a lot among themselves. But they never forgot from whence they came, nor did they forego their determination to return.
So far, some 3,000 Bnei Menashe have made aliya thanks to Shavei Israel. Some 7,000 Bnei Menashe remain in India waiting for the chance to return home to Zion.
The group which made aliya last week was the first to arrive in over a year and a half, and the first from the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram to move to Israel in more than three years.
The Bnei Menashe may not speak Yiddish or Ladino, eat gefilte fish or savor hot cholent, but that in no way makes them any less a part of Jewish destiny. They are a blessing for Israel and the Jewish people and we must do everything in our power to reunite them with our nation.
Lyon Fanai, who studied political science and graphic design at an Indian university, was a successful entrepreneur who opened an independent desktop publishing and computer-aided textile design firm in his hometown of Aizawl, Mizoram's lush and hilly capital.
He did so after it became too difficult to observe Shabbat and Jewish festivals at his previous employer.
"Requesting a day or two off from the office for a Jewish festival was definitely a problem," Fanai said in fluent English, adding, "I ultimately had to leave the company where I was working and that's when I realized that the best way to be observant in India was for me to establish my own company."
Queried by a journalist as to why he wanted to make aliya, Fanai looked surprised by the question, as though he had been asked why he desires to breathe.
"It is a mitzvah," he said, without a trace of cynicism, telling the reporter that "it is the obligation of every Jew to live in Israel, so I am coming here to fulfill my obligation."
Fanai's son Shimshon, who has a BA in agricultural science, later told Israel Television that he dreams of pursuing a master's degree at an Israeli university, "so that I can help in developing the economy of Israel."
On a personal note, the highlight for me of last week's aliya was when a four-year-old Bnei Menashe boy named Yoav came over to me with his parents. I picked him up and then he gave me a big hug to thank me for bringing him and his family to Israel. With that simple gesture, Yoav made all the obstacles and headaches that had preceded the aliya melt away in an instant.
The Bnei Menashe are committed Zionists and observant Jews. They work hard, proudly support themselves and their families, with the younger men all serving in the IDF and the women performing national service. They strengthen us quantitatively and qualitatively, spiritually and demographically. And with God's help, we shall bring them all home, every last one.