Becky Melamed knows how tough it is to be a new immigrant. She arrived in Israel from New York with her family in 2009 when she was just six years old. So, as she was turning 12 and planning her bat mitzvah, she knew she wanted to give something back to other new immigrants who might have it even harder than she did.
Becky’s mother Lisa was friends with Shavei Israel’s director of marketing Laura Ben-David, who had helped the Melamed family with their own aliyah when Laura was working for the aliyah organization Nefesh b’Nefesh. In her new position at Shavei Israel, Laura had posted pictures of her trip to India when she went to assist with last November’s Bnei Menashe aliyah.
Lisa showed the pictures to Becky. “I wonder if there are any Bnei Menashe girls my age?” Becky asked her mother. “Maybe we could share my bat mitzvah with them?”
There were ten Bnei Menahse girls from India who fit the description and who had arrived in Israel at the end of 2014. Becky and Lisa drove up the Kfar Hasidim absorption center to meet the new immigrants.
From that very first meeting, Becky developed a close bond with her peers from so far away. “We brought games – jump rope and Chamesh Avenim,” a popular Israeli pastime played by throwing and picking up five small stones, Lisa recalls. “And we did an art project – we created a tile with their names and a mirror that you can hang on a wall or a door.”
While Becky was tossing stones with some of the Bnei Menashe girls, her mother was interviewing the others so that Becky could give a presentation to her classmates back home about her new Bnei Menashe friends.
Over the course of the next few months, Becky stayed in touch the Bnei Menashe girls in Kfar Hasidim and then as they moved out of the absorption center to their permanent homes in Safed. When the holiday of Purim came, the girls in Becky’s class prepared a Purim kit to deliver to her friends in the north, complete with costumes, groggers (noise makers used during the reading of the Scroll of Esther), candies and brachot (blessings) for each of the girls.
“We drove back up before Purim and gave them mishlochei manot (Purim gifts) and did another art project,” Lisa says.
The two groups also got together in Jerusalem when the Bnei Menashe came to visit the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the first time. “It was wonderful and heartwarming,” Lisa says, “not just for Becky and the girls, but for anyone who was at the Kotel that night. To see 250 Bnei Menashe, singing passionately about Jerusalem in their native language of Kuki – it was incredibly moving.”
Finally, the big day arrived. The Bnei Menashe girls came down from Safed by mini-bus and went straight to Becky’s school where they got to know Becky’s classmates, ate snacks and did another art project together. Then it was off to Becky’s house where the Bnei Menashe girls got all dolled up for the bat mitzvah – with fancy hair do’s and professional makeup.
The bat mitzvah party was held at a nearby restaurant, with dancing and food. Of the 100 guests, 70 were other 12-year-old girls, including the 10 Bnei Menashe. Becky was hoisted up above the crowd on a chair and tossed into the air with a large tablecloth. Had the Bnei Menashe girls ever seen such traditions? Apparently yes, Lisa says. “After the Bnei Menashe get to Israel, many of the couples go through a new chuppah (wedding ceremony) and there’s lots of dancing and fun there. Let’s just say that the Bnei Menashe girls were not timid on the dance floor!”
There was something the girls had not encountered before: American simcha “shtick” – all kinds of wild and crazy paraphernalia meant to enhance the festivities. Pompoms, oversized sunglasses and Hawaiian necklaces are apparently not part of Bnei Menashe celebrations back in India!
The Bnei Menashe girls brought their own modest gifts for Becky. One in particular stood out: a beautiful Indian necklace. A Bnei Menashe girl named Elisheva had brought three such necklaces from India but she’d lost two of them along the way. This was her last one and she gave it to Becky.
The Bnei Menashe girls enjoyed themselves tremendously, but Becky and her mother also received a lot from the experience. “Becky was very sensitive to the fact that the Bnei Menashe girls may not have a lot,” Lisa explains. As a result, “she gained an appreciation for what it’s like to make aliyah without things. We came with a lift and all our furniture and moved into a big house. The Bnei Menashe went straight to an absorption center with just a suitcase. It changed Becky’s idea about what aliyah is. Israel is not just another ‘destination.’ It’s a place people dream of coming to with all of their hearts. Immigrants like the Bnei Menashe identify so much with the Jewish nation; they are part of us. That really strengthened Becky. She admired their courage.”
And yet the girls also had a lot in common. “They both came to a place where they didn’t understand the language and culture,” Lisa says. “It was hard for Becky, going into first grade and not being able to read Hebrew yet.” As a result, although “they came from a very different starting place, we’re all here together.”
At the bat mitzvah party, Becky spoke about the mitzvah (commandment) of living in Israel and how lucky she was to be here. She congratulated the Bnei Menashe girls on their aliyah and called them up individually to give them presents – necklaces with their names on them.
Exhausted, the girls all piled back into the Melamed’s home for a post-party sleepover. In the morning, the Bnei Menashe girls were in for a final surprise: sushi – something none had ever eaten before. But they liked it – especially the spicy green wasabi sauce. “I remember that when we visited them at Kfar Hasidim, we were eating together in the dining room and some of the girls ran back to their rooms to get extra hot sauce to put on their food,” Lisa says. “They really like their spicy food!”
Most of the communication with the Bnei Menashe was done, surprisingly, in English, which is widely taught in India. The Bnei Menashe girls are still at the beginning part of the Hebrew acclimatization.
Lisa Melamed had been dreaming about aliyah ever since she and her husband honeymooned in Israel 17 years ago. Four children later, they finally made aliyah and their family has since grown to include two Sabras (children who were born in Israel).
It is traditional for a bat mitzvah girl to give a portion of any cash gifts she receives to charity and Becky found the perfect recipient – the Bnei Menashe. But not her new friends. Becky participated in a new campaign Shavei Israel launched earlier this month on the website Jewcer to raise money for the next Bnei Menashe aliyah, The first 80 Bnei Menashe in this group arrived in Israel last week, with another 170 due by the end of July.