A Bnei Menashe Gets A Kick Out of Israel: A Conversation With Obed Hrangchal
Updated: Mar 31
(March 30) When, after barely a year in Israel, 28-year-old Obed Hrangchal was crowned champion in his 57 kg. ((125 lb.) weight class in the National Israeli Kickboxing Tournament held in the Galilee town of Kafr Yasif last week, it was a source of pride to the B’nei Menashe community. Asked for an interview by our Newsletter, Hrangchawl graciously agreed. Here is our conversation with him.
To begin with, do we call you Óbed, as your name appears in the English Bible, or Ovéd, as in Hebrew?
Either. In Mizoram, it was Obed. In Israel, it’s Oved. I guess I’m still more used to Obed.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Obed. Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1994 in a village called Thinghlun on the Mizoram side of the Mizoram-Assam border. It had about 150 families. My parents are Gavriel and Ruth Hrangchal and we were two children, myself and an older sister who is married with five children herself and still waiting for her Aliyah. We were a farming family like most of the families in the village, with rice paddies and fish ponds that we owned and worked.
Did you go to school in Thinghlhun?
Not through 6th grade. My father enrolled me in a Catholic school called St. Francis Xavier, in a town called Kanhmun, which was a ten kilometers’ bus ride away. It cost money, but he thought I would get a better education there, and I did learn to speak English well. From 7th to 10th grade I attended the Thinghlun Higher Secondary School. In 2012, my parents decided to move to the capital of Aizawl, and I finished my high school education there and obtained my diploma.
What made them decide to move Aizawl?
They wanted to be part of a Jewish community. In Thinghlun, we were the only Jewish family.
How does a family get to be the only Jewish one in a remote village like Thinghlun?
It started with our attempt at Sabbath observance. My father was a Bible reader and came to the conclusion that the seventh day, not Sunday, was the true day of rest. At first, this had nothing to do with Judaism. But on his travels to Aizawl, he discovered the B’nei Menashe community and felt drawn to it. At that point, we began to think of ourselves as Jews.
And how did your interest in martial arts begin?
It started already as a small boy. I must have been about six years old. My friends and I liked to watch Bruce Lee movies, and we began to imitate what we saw in them when we played. There were no gyms or clubs in the village to train in, and we had to improvise. We used sacks of rice for punching bags and made gloves from old, torn towels that we wrapped around our fists. We didn’t miss a day. We weren’t practicing any particular martial art. We combined whatever we were exposed to -- kung fu, wushu, karate, we took all we could. You might say we invented our own mixed martial art.
The big change for me came with moving to Aizawl. For the first time I had facilities to train in. I joined a club run by the SAI, the Sports Authority of India. and eventually became a mixed martial arts instructor. I also began to take part in local events and competitions. In 2014, at the suggestion of a friend, I entered a statewide wushu competition and took second place. That was my last year in high school. It was only a few years later that I started to concentrate on kick boxing and to enter competitions in that.
And you continued competing when you came to Israel in 2021?
No, not at first. My parents and I spent several months in an absorption center and went through our formal conversion to Judaism, and then we moved with the other immigrants to Nof Hagalil. It would have been the fulfillment of a dream to practice martial arts in Israel, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I couldn’t do it while working full-time for a living. Many B’nei Menashe assured me that kickboxing was a worthless skill in Israel and even made fun of me for wanting carry on with it.
I received no help from anyone, no good advice of any kind. No one involved with our absorption in Nof Hagalil bothered to counsel us on career training. In general, no one prepares us for life in this country, neither before coming to it nor after arriving.
In Mizoram, we’re made to think that everyone in Israel is religious and that that’s how we’ll be judged, but of course, that isn’t the case. Israeli society is divided into groups and subgroups that we knew nothing about. And it’s been a disappointment to see our community, especially the young people, lagging behind. They seem to spend most of their time playing games on their Smartphones. We lack values, guidance. I hope the youngsters will see my story as an inspiration for their own success. Let them all know that, all that’s needed to succeed is within ourselves.
What did you do at this point?
I had to look for a job on my own. In the end, I found one with the help of friends at a factory in Nof Hagalil called RH Electronics. I was assigned to an assembly line where I had to put components together. I had to stand there all day without hardly talking to anyone, just following the instructions I was given. Pretty soon I realized that it was a dead-end job. Even the one thing I had hoped to get from it, to improve my Hebrew, was not going to happen. After five months I quit and registered for a yeshiva in Ma'alot [a town in the western Upper Galilee]. At least there I could get a small stipend to live on and attend classes, mostly in Bible and Jewish law, that were in Hebrew.
There was also enough free time between classes for me to return to the thing I loved most, and I went back to practicing my kickboxing moves at home and at nearby public parks. I had no sparring partner and worked out by myself. One day, as I was going through my moves, an elderly lady passing by stopped to watch me. After a while she came up to me, told me she was impressed by my talent, and suggested I join a gym where I could train professionally.
Believe me, it’s little acts of human kindness like that that make all the difference. If only there had been someone in our community, or in the organizations that are supposed to be helping us, who could have given me such guidance! Unfortunately, that’s what we lack. We’re brought to Israel and left to fend for ourselves.
That incident was a turning point for me, I looked around and found a gym run by David Ramon, a martial arts coach who had served as a referee and judge for the World Association of Kickboxing. I couldn’t have hoped for a better person. It was under his mentorship that I began my road to the championship I just won.
Gyms cost money. Where do you get it from?
My parents paid for my gym fees. And the head of my yeshiva, Rabbi Koch, and my relative, Shmuel Boitlung [a member of Degel Menashe’s board of directors], helped pay for the supplementary diet I need to have. In a sport like kickboxing, maintaining your weight is very important. Although there’s nothing to keep me from going to a higher weight, I’d be at disadvantage there, because I’m short and don’t have the arm and leg reach of bigger opponents.
What’s a typical day at the yeshiva like?
It starts at 6:30 am. There are morning prayers and breakfast at eight, and then classes in Bible and Jewish law with breaks in-between, during which I read the Bible in Mizo or practice a bit. After lunch and afternoon prayers, there’s another break in which I can train some more, and then at 4 p.m. a lesson on subjects of relevance, often the Torah reading of the week. At 6:30 pm I head for the gym to train until 8. Then I shower, have dinner, and am in bed by 11.
That’s a rigorous schedule! Tell us about the tournament title you just won.
There were eight finalists in my weight class and the loser in each bout was eliminated, which meant the winner had to win three straight bouts. Each bout had three two-minute rounds with a minute’s rest between them. I won the first two bouts on points and the third by a technical knockout when the referee ruled that my opponent was too dazed to continue.
What comes next?
As the Israeli champion in my weight class, I’m registered for competition in the European Cup tournament, which will take place in Athens in the last week of April. It would be a big honor to represent Israel there. I’ve gotten my passport but I still need to find a sponsor who to pay for my airfare and expenses. I just can’t afford to pay for them myself. I hope someone will turn up.
Someone did! Following our interview with him, Degel Menashe offered to sponsor Obed Hrangchawl’s participation in the European Cup tournament. We’ll pay for his expenses and let you know in a month’s time how he does. Meanwhile, let’s all wish him good luck!