A Shabbat With Young B’nei Menashe: Our Managing Director Visits A Yeshiva
(January 19) Degel Menashe’s managing director Yitzhak Thangjom and his wife Jessica spent last weekend with young B’nei Menashe immigrants at the yeshiva of Nahal Yitzhak at which they are studying. Here is his account.
The call came from Gemuel Lotzem, the counselor of the thirty young B’nei Menashe now studying and living at the Nahal Yitzhak Yeshiva, which is located in the village of Nehalim on the outskirts of Petach-Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Gemuel and his wife Re’ut were inviting Jessica and me to spend a Shabbat with the group, whose members immigrated to Israel in 2020-21 and are now between the ages of 13 and 18. He felt that there were many things regarding Israel and their futures in it that they did not have a clear grasp of and were curious to learn more about, and he wanted the two of us to discuss some of these things with them. He was concerned, he told me, about the possible effect on B’nei Menashe youth of the murder of Yoel Lhanghal and
the fear it might arouse in them of not being wanted in Israel. This was a special cause for concern, so he thought, because of an incident that had taken place in the yeshiva a few weeks previously, in which, in the course of a soccer game, a brawl broke out between some B’nei Menashe boys and other students.
Yet from our general observations, and from the three sessions that Jessica and I spent with the B’nei Menashe contingent at Nahal Yitzhak – the first one on Friday night after Shabbat dinner, the second following Kiddush on Shabbat morning, and the third at the Se’udah Shlishit, the “Third Meal,” that afternoon – it wasn’t our impression that the question of anti-B’nei Menashe prejudice weighed on them. When asked about their relations with the other students at the yeshiva, their answers were all in the “there’s no problem”-“we get along”-“everything’s all right” category, and watching them interact with the others as they prayed, sang, ate, and joked together seemed to confirm that this was the case. We felt no tension and were impressed by the efforts the yeshiva makes genuine efforts to integrate the B’nei Menashe youngsters in its life. At the Kabbalat Shabbat, the Sabbath evening service that we attended, the youth chosen to lead the prayers was a B’nei Menashe boy.
Of course, since teenagers are shy in general, and B’nei Menashe teenagers tend to be even more so, it’s possible that that the youngsters we spoke to did not tell us everything that was on their minds. Once the ice was broken, however, they were not reticent about other subjects. Mostly, they were full of questions for us. How important was it for them to get their high-school diplomas? What awaited them in the army? (Three of the boys will be getting their call-ups this year.) Did they stand a chance of being accepted into any of its best units? What careers might be open to them afterwards? What professions that they might qualify for earned the best?
There were lively discussions about these things. We already knew from Gemuel that Nahal Yitzhak provided its B’nei Menashe students with a special program of their own in order to equip them for life ahead. “The yeshiva route is chosen by the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption for most B’nei Menashe boy, their age,” he told us. (Girls are placed in a parallel track in religious institutions of their own.) “Nahal Yitzhak has the largest such group, but there are many others scattered at yeshivot throughout the country. Because they’re new in Israel, haven’t had much of an education in India, and are still learning to master Hebrew, we don’t mix them educationally with the other boys. They have classes of their own, divided into two age groups – the 13-to-15 year olds, and the 16s-to-18s. In the religious field, they study mostly Bible and simple rabbinic texts. In their general studies, besides intensive Hebrew classes, they concentrate on math, English, and history, which is what they’ll most need for their matriculation exams. The Ministry of Education lets them take these exams in a simplified form, so that their chances of getting diplomas are good.”
The 29-year-old Gemuel, a B'nei Menashe from Kiryat Arba, is a fairly new immigrant himself, although by now a thoroughly acclimatized one; he arrived in Israel in 2014, began his military service in the air force soon after, and has been a counselor at Nahal Yitzhak since October, 2021. “I took the job,” he says, “because I wanted to do something for my community. I’ve seen how so many B’nei Menashe immigrants, both young and old, end up stuck in low-paying factory or cleaning jobs because there are no other options available to anyone with their skills. It’s sad. There’s not much that can be done for the older people, But the younger ones can be given opportunities: they can have careers and not just jobs. I don’t look at what I am doing as just a job, either. It’s more of a mission.”
It’s a full-time one. “I’m with the students most of the day, including Shabbat,” Gemuel says. ”I have to make sure they’re up on time for morning prayers and classes, that they attend all their lessons, that they turn up for meals on time, that they get the help they need if they run into any difficulties, that they have someone to talk to about their problems. If I can’t solve them myself, I’ll look for someone who can. Recently, a group of them came to me and complained that they weren’t being given rice to eat, which is the mainstay of every B’nei Menashe diet. I went to the kitchen staff and explained this to them, and now rice is served for those who want it at almost every meal.”
Rice isn’t the only thing the B’nei Menashe boys miss. When Jessica and I came for our visit, she brought with her a special dish she had prepared for the Shabbat meal, mepoh, which is a kind of slow-cooked B’nei Menashe cholent based on rice, meat, and fresh herbs and spices. It was fallen upon with relish, and her only regret was that she hadn’t made more, especially since there were quite a few non-B’nei Menashe boys who wanted a taste, too. There was a lot of laughter over it, as well as over other things, and a lot of singing and merriment. In fact, it was the noisiest Shabbat dinner we’d been at in quite a time!
Despite what seems to be the successful integration of the B’nei Menashe youth in the yeshiva’s life, we were struck by its lack of knowledge of Israeli society in general. Especially at a time like this, when the country is in a turmoil, we would have expected these young people, to know and want to know more about their new homeland’s politics, divisions, and controversies. No questions were asked about any of these things. I was made to think of the fourth son, the one we read about in the Passover Seder, who did not know how to ask. Both Nahal Yitzhak and the other yeshivot where young B’nei Menashe are currently placed need not teach them not only Jewish and matriculation subjects but also more about the country that is now theirs.
They need to understand Israel better than they do. The culture they have grown up in emphasizes conformity rather than individuality, whereas Israel is much the opposite. They are going to have to deal with the line between these two worlds and learn how to cross and recross it. Gemuel feels that they have already come a long way since he first met them. “They lacked confidence,” he says. “I have tried and mostly succeeded in bringing them out of their shells. They are now more sure of themselves than they were a year ago. The reward I truly look forward to is that one day they will be able to find good, fulfilling jobs, raise children of their own, and contribute to their and our only home: Israel.”