|Motto||Find Our Lost Brethren|
Shavei Israel (Hebrew: שבי ישראל, Returners of Israel) is an Israeli-based Jewish organization that reaches out to descendants of Jews around the world to strengthen their connection with Israel and the Jewish people. Founded by Michael Freund, Shavei Israel locates lost Jews and hidden Jewish communities and assists them with returning to their roots and, sometimes, with aliyah. The organization’s team is composed of academics, educators and rabbis.
The organization seeks to help people who became separated from Judaism through cultural assimilation to reconnect with the Jewish people. It says that it is not a missionary organization, but a group trying to reconnect people to their Jewish roots. It is active in nine countries, most notably in the last decade with the Bnei Menashe of northeastern India, who have been recognised as descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.
It supports emerging Jewish communities and individuals in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and South and Central America, descendants of people whose Sephardic ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism during the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. The descendants of these forced converts have been known as Marranos, or Neofiti; they are also known as crypto-Jews if they maintained their Jewish faith in secrecy, or as Anusim (or Anousim) if later generations eventually embraced Catholicism and lost all connection with their Jewish roots.
In recent years, Shavei Israel has assisted descendants of Hidden Jews from the Holocaust era in Poland who have begun to discover their families’ Jewish roots. The organization is enabling them to reclaim their Jewish identity and rebuild Jewish life in Poland.
Shavei Israel sponsors rabbis and teachers to work with various groups of "lost Jews" to educate them in normative Judaism and assist them in aliyah if they choose. Its affiliated rabbis are posted in Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Valencia, Granada, and Sevilla in Spain; Belmonte in northern Portugal, San Nicandro in southern Italy, Brazil, Krakow and Wroclaw in Poland; and in Mizoram and Manipur, in North-East India. In December 2010, it sent Rabbi Shlomo Zelig Avrasin to work with the Subbotnik Jewish communities in Russia, particularly Vysoky.
In Jerusalem, it operates Machon Miriam, a Spanish-language "conversion and return institute." Dozens of Spanish and Portuguese crypto-Jews graduate from Machon Miriam each year, and undergo formal conversion by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.
The organization supported the Bnei Menashe of India in being recognised as "descendants of Israel" by the Israeli Chief Rabbi in March 2005. Shavei Israel has also assisted with teachers in India. As of 2013, a total of 2,000 Bnei Menashe have made aliyah (immigrated to Israel). The organization assists immigrants with their integration into Israeli society. Some 7,200 Bnei Menashe in India hope to emigrate to Israel; the organization is teaching them Hebrew and normative Judaism.
As part of its educational efforts, the organization has published a series of books on Judaism in a dozen languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Mizo, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian and German.
Shavei has been criticised for its limited vision of the status of Jews and the definition of Jewishness. It has also been accused of giving only some attention to groups like the Majorca Chuetas and the Belmonte Jews, and of favouring Ashkenazi rather than Sephardi customs. Their rabbis have been criticised for offending followers of local non-Orthodox spiritual traditions and favoring Orthodox Israeli Judaism.
Shavei Israel became involved with the Bnei Menashe after Michael Freund succeeded Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail as leader of Amishav, another organization dedicated to locating the Lost Tribes of Israel. Avichail had learned of the group in India and traveled there in the 1980s to investigate them. He began to believe they might be descendants of Jews.
In 1998, the US-Israeli writer and New York Sun columnist, Hillel Halkin, traveled to India with Rabbi Avichail to meet with the Bnei Menashe. He wrote Across The Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel (2002), concluding that the great majority of the Kuki-Mizo do not descend from the lost tribe of Manasseh. He thought a few may have such Jewish ancestry and passed on their history and traditions to the remaining Kuki-Mizo people.
The Rabbi left the leadership of Amishav for the Jerusalem Post columnist and former vice director of communications and policy planning of the Prime Ministers Office Michael Freund, who founds Shavei Israel. In 2003, the formerly Shavei sponsored Hillel Halkin starts collecting 350 genetic samples of Mizo-Kuki which are tested in the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology of Haifa under the guidance of Prof. Karl Skorecki. In agreement to the late Mizo research scholar, Isaac Hmar Intoate, who helped collect the samples, no proof was found which seemed to indicate a Middle Eastern origin for the Mizo-Chin-Kuki.
In March 2005 Rabbi Shlomo Amar announced the recognition of the Bnei Menashe by Israel and their possibility of immigration under the Law of Return. He would require those who wanted to "return" to undergo a formal, full conversion as their people had been separated from Judaism for so long. In June 2005 the Bnei Menashe completed the construction of a mikvah, a ritual bath tank, in Mizoram under the supervision of Israeli Rabbis in way to start the process of conversion to Judaism. Short afterwards, a similar mikvah was built in Manipur (Shavei was involved in all this mass conversion and immigration process). In mid-2005, with the help of Shavei Israel and the Kiryat Arba local council, the Bnei Menashe opened their first community center in Israel.
Freund has said that "groups like the Bnei Menashe constitute a wide demographic and spiritual reserve, for being used, by Israel and the Jewish people." He supported the resettlement of 218 Bnei Menashe on the High Nazareth and Karmiel in November 2005, saying, "after what the North passed by this Summer during the Lebanon war, it is especially meaningful that the Bnei Menashe will help to strengthen and revitalize this part of Israel.". In the last two decades about 1,700 Bnei Menashe moved to Israel, mainly settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (until the disengagement in 2005).
The move of several thousand Mizo-Kuki to take up normative Judaism has created tensions in Mizoram, which is mostly Christian, and also in Manipur, where its tribe is mostly Christian. Other Mizo-Kuki reject the idea of Jewish ancestry. They are concerned about this movement adding to the separatist tensions that have long plagued North-East India, as does the government. Lalchanhima Sailo, founder of the Chhinlung Israel People’s Convention (CIPC), a secessionist Mizo organization, says that he is working toward an independent Mizo Israelite nation inside India.
The mass conversions of Mizo-Kuki peoples has aroused concern by the Indian government, as it prohibits prosyletizing. In November 2005 Israel recalled the Rabbinic Court teams, which had been preparing several hundred Bnei Menashe for conversion, to calm the concerns of the Indian rulers. At the time, some Hindu groups complained that the government had paid more attention to Christian complaints of prosyletizing than to their own about Christian missionaries.
After suspending the issuance of visas to Bnei Menashe for a few years, in January 2010 the Israeli government announced that the remaining 7,200 Bnei Menashe could make aliyah within a period of 1–2 years after completing conversion at facilities in Nepal. This allowed them to avoid problems with India. In 2012 the ban on visas was lifted and in January 2013, the 2000th Bnei Menashe immigrant entered Israel.
- Michael Freund, "The Emergence of Turkey’s Hidden Jews", The Jerusalem Post, 24 March 2011, at the Shavei Israel website
- "Russia's Subbotnik Jews get rabbi", Ynetnews, 12.09.10
- Machon Miriam, Shavei Israel website
- Itamar Eichner, "Members of Bnei Menashe to make aliyah", ynetnews.com, 01.08.10
- Bess Twiston-Davies, Faith News, The Times, 22 October 2005
- Book Store, Shavei.org
- Jerome Socolovsky, "For Portugal’s crypto-Jews, new rabbi tries to blend tradition with local custom", Our Jerusalem.com, 13 October 2003
- The Jewish Connection, Myth or Reality, Isaac Hmar
- "The lost and found Jews in Manipur and Mizoram", Isaac Hmar
- Rabbi backs India's 'lost Jews', BBC News, South Asia, 1 April 2005
- "India's lost tribe recognized as Jews after 2,700 years", Peter Foster, Telegraph.co.uk, 17 de 09 de 2005
- "Lost Tribe' makes aliyah" JESSICA STEINBERG, December 27, 2002/Tevet 22 5763, Jewishaz, Vol. 55, No. 18
- Jerusalem Post
- "More than 200 Bnei Menashe arriving in Israel", Israel National News
- "Mizoram: A State of Israel in South East Asia", Simon Says, TravelBlog, 2004-02-15]
- "An emerging Israel in Mizoram", Simon Says, TravelBlog, 2004-12-19
- , Northeast Vigil
- "UPA Government goes out to help conversion", Organiser.org, Surya Narain Saxena, 2006-01-15
- "Members of Bnei Menashe to make aliyah", Arutz Sheva