Photo Credit: shavei
Author Michael Freund with Bnei Menashe boys on Yom Haatzmaut

{Originally posted to the author’s website}

While much of the nation was engaged in grilling various forms of meat in public parks and enjoying an otherwise peaceful Independence Day earlier this week, one immigrant family was busy setting an example of the true meaning of patriotism.

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At a ceremony held in Jerusalem, Staff Sergeant Eliezer Menashe ascended the podium as his relatives looked on, and was granted a Medal of Excellence by President Reuven Rivlin along with more than 100 other IDF soldiers.

But unlike the rest of the fine young men and women being honored, most of whom were born and raised in the Jewish state, young Eliezer’s journey to that dais is one that began more than 5,000 km. away in a remote village along India’s northeastern border with Myanmar.

And what a journey it has been.

Eliezer and his family are members of the Bnei Menashe, an ancient community that is descended from the tribe of Manasseh, one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel that was exiled by the Assyrian empire more than 27 centuries ago at the end of the First Temple period.

Despite being cut off from the rest of the Jewish people for so long, the Bnei Menashe nourished the dream of return, longing to come home to Zion and take part in her rebuilding.

And that is precisely what Eliezer and his family have been doing since the moment they set foot on the soil of Israel, as he and most of his five other siblings have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Eliezer’s older brother, Yehoshua, was the first to reach Israel, in the year 2000. After studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva, he was determined to serve in an IDF combat unit.

Already in his mid-20s, the army looked askance at him, offering to take him in for a grand total of just three months.

Although he hadn’t been in the country very long, Yehoshua had learned a thing or two about how to be assertive. So he marched down to the IDF recruitment center in Jerusalem and asked to be taken to the commander’s office, even though he did not have an appointment.

Not wishing to be bothered with a stubborn immigrant who insisted on volunteering for more than the army was asking of him, the commander refused to see him.

So Yehoshua did the unthinkable: he stood outside the door and would not budge.

Hour after hour passed, but the young man would not move.

Surely, the commander must have thought, he will eventually give up and just go away so I can enjoy my army-issued Turkish coffee in peace.

But after five or six hours had passed, it was clear that Yehoshua had no intention of leaving empty-handed. So in the end, it was the hardened officer who capitulated, and Yehoshua got his wish: he passed all the necessary physical exams and became a combat soldier in the 51st battalion of the Golani brigade, despite being seven or eight years older than everyone else in the unit.

In 2005, thanks to Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, Yehoshua’s parents were able to make aliya and be reunited with their son, and the rest of his siblings followed.

Tragically, his father passed away in 2008, but he did merit to live to see his children growing up in the land of his ancestors and defending the country from its foes.

Inspired by Yehoshua’s example, his sister Avishag and brother Oz told the army that they too wished to enlist, even though they were 28 and 29 years old at the time. But that hardly proved to be an impediment, as Oz battled his way into the elite Sayeret Golani special forces unit, while Avishag became the Bnei Menashe community’s first female IDF combat soldier.

So when Eliezer, the youngest member of the family, received his commendation on Independence Day, it was a moment rich in symbolism and suffused with Jewish pride. He too serves in the Golani infantry brigade, where he obviously excels at his duties, and will undoubtedly motivate others to follow in his steps.

Over the past 15 years, Shavei Israel has assisted more than 3,000 Bnei Menashe to make aliya from India, including a group of 102 immigrants who arrived in February.

We have permission to bring an additional 600 people by the end of the year and with God’s help we will do so. But there are still another 7,000 Bnei Menashe in India who want to make aliya and many have been waiting years to do so.

As Yehoshua Menashe said to me, “Isn’t it ironic how the Israeli bureaucracy places so many obstacles in the way of the Bnei Menashe who wish to come here, and yet we produce so many people who give their all to this country and are staunchly loyal citizens?” Yehoshua couldn’t be more correct.

The story of the Menashe family, like that of the Bnei Menashe community as a whole, is one of struggle and faith, of overcoming enormous bureaucratic challenges and cultural gaps, to reclaim their rightful place among the Jewish people.

It is a tale of national service and unwavering Zionist commitment and a healthy reminder that even in an age of growing cynicism, there are still many young patriots and pioneers willing to risk everything so that the Jewish people can live in safety.

I join the rest of the nation in saluting Eliezer Menashe and his family and I pray that one day soon, all the rest of the Bnei Menashe will be allowed to join them here in our Land. Let us do everything in our power to make that happen, not merely for their sake, but for ours too.

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Michael Freund is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel. He writes a syndicated column and feature stories for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily, and he previously served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu. A native of New York, he holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.