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A Hebrew Teacher In a DP Camp

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

(August 3, 2023) A government-run displaced persons camp at Thingdawl in northern Mizoram, in the far northeast corner of India. The camp is for ethnic Kukis who have fled the Meitei-Kuki violence in Manipur. A room full of children, some of them practically doubled over, squat on the floor with their notebooks. A barefoot teacher stands in front of them. He, too, has found refuge at Thingdawl. His name is Khaiminlal Nadav Lhoujem. The children are learning to read and write Hebrew.

Our Newsletter first met Nadav when it visited the Thingdawl camp at the end of June. (See our June 30 article, “Degel Menashe Visits Displaced In Mizoram.”) Here, now told to us in full, is his story:

”I was born Khaiminlal Lhoujiem in 1991 in a little village whose name I don’t remember near Mahur, a town with a small Kuki population in the Karbi Anglong district of eastern Assam on the border with Manipur. My parents moved to the area when I was an infant and it was still known as the Mikir Hills. I was the next-to-youngest child, with a younger brother, in a family of of six boys and two girls. One of my other brothers died of an unknown illness in 2012, and another in 2023, from heat exhaustion while working. All of the others except me are married.

“My parents were quite devout and jointed a group of ‘Sabbathers,’ Christians who observed the biblical Sabbath and other Old Testament customs. This led them to an interest in Judaism. When I was three, they joined the B’nei Menashe community, of which there were half-a-dozen families at the time in Mahur. I was circumcised and given the Hebrew name of Nadav.

“Because we were so many children at home, I was sent when I was five or six I to live with an uncle and his family in Hyderabad. My uncle was the headmaster of a primary school at which I began my education, but for the most part I was home-schooled by my aunt, the daughter of an English missionary on her father’s side. The local language was Telugu, which I learned to read speak and have command of to this day. I also picked up some Hindi and can speak all our tribal languages – Kuki, Mizo, Paite, and Hmar. Perhaps that’s why Hebrew seems to come to me naturally, too.

Nadav Lhoujem.

“My uncle was well-versed in the Bible. He and his family were Sabbathers and lit candles in Friday evenings, although they never joined the B’nei Menashe community, which had no congregation in Hyderabad. When I was eleven or twelve, he passed away. After that, the family fell apart and I was sent to Bangalore, where a job was found for me with Wipro, a big Indian hi-tech company. I worked at a corporate guest house as an errand and delivery boy with other boys my age, whom I was eventually put in charge of. I stayed with Wipro there until 2007, when my father died of a stroke and it was decided to bring me home again.

“One of my brothers had moved to northern Mizoram, to Rengtekawn in the Kolasib district, and had established himself and his family there, and so we moved there to join him. There was a B’nei Menashe community in Kolasib that was in close touch with the large community in Lamka [Churachandpur], and this gave us an opportunity to learn more about Judaism. The more we learned, the more we wanted to learn – it was an exciting period. And the excitement grew when we heard that there was a chance to apply for Aliyah to Israel. In 2015 we were invited by Shavei Israel to an interview with a board of rabbis, We were told we had passed, but after a week we were informed that we hadn’t and that we had to move to Lamka if we hoped to pass the next time. Despite failing, we felt encouraged and we went back to Rengtekawn in January 2016 to fetch our belongings and move to Lamka. That’s where we were until May of this year, when the violence made us come back to Mizoram. Unfortunately, the promises made to us were never kept. Although there have been quite a few Aliyahs since, we were never again considered for any of them. I’ve been close to despair more than once and envious of those who were chosen. It’s been quite frustrating.

“I began studying Hebrew seriously as soon as we came to Lamka in 2016, picking up whatever I could from whoever was willing to share it with me while working at odd jobs to pay for food and rent Before long I could read the prayers in the Siddur and even understand parts of them. After a while I began to teach what I knew to small children who wanted to learn, and when the Eliyahu Avichayil School opened right before the Covid pandemic, I tutored some of its pupils who needed help. By now I was also learning some spoken Hebrew from Israeli visitors who came to the area. In the beginning, they were rare, but once the pandemic ended, we had Israeli visitors almost every month. Most were young backpackers just out of the army and I tried to take as much advantage of their stay as I could.

Camp building in Thingdawl.

“The violence broke out in early May this year. My mother and I decided to head back with my brother’s two-year-old son to Mizoram, since we had lived there before. We headed for Aizawl and were put up there at a Bnei Menashe member's home while I looked for a job and an apartment to rent, but work was unavailable and rents were sky-high, so that when we heard of the government run camp in Thingdawl, we decided to relocate to it.

“We were already living in the camp when a Degel Menashe mission to Manipur and Mizoram visited Thingdawl with humanitarian aid late last June. I spoke with Jessica Thangjom, the mission’s head, and we decided that, besides material needs, it was important provide some Jewish education for the camp’s B’nei Menashe children. I volunteered to teach and was promised learning materials – notebooks, pencils, whiteboards and markers, things like that. As soon as they arrived, I arranged to be given a room in the camp for classes. It serves as a classroom by day and a sleeping space at night.

Nadav’s pupils.

“The children go to a government public school and I teach them in the after-school hours. Right now, we have classes that last for an hour or more on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. There are 15 children between the ages of 8 to 15 who are studying with me. Most of the older children are able to read the Siddur by now. Apart from Hebrew, I give them lessons in Jewish law and in the weekly Bible portion. Now I’ve heard that Degel Menashe has approved a small stipend for me. That’s good news.

“My goal is still to reach Israel. I obviously can’t be a teacher there, but I’ll work at any job I can find. If I can manage to care for my mother, raise my nephew, and study Torah, so that I can fulfill as many of its commandments as I can, I’ll want for nothing. Yesterday, a group of B’nei Menashe from Lamka arrived in Thingdawl, because they want to obtain passports so as to be ready for Aliyah. Normally, a resident of Manipur would apply for a passport in Imphal, but it’s too dangerous for a Kuki to be there these days and they’re applying at an office in Aizawl, which demands that they live for several months in Mizoram to establish residency. More of them are expected at Thingdawl. I’m sorry for them that they’ll have to spend the months in a DP camp while they wait, but I’m happy for myself, because we’ll now finally have a minyan for prayer at Thingdawl! I take my Judaism very seriously.”


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