Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe Remain Split After Khovevei Tsion “Peace Proposal”
(March 2) In good Jewish tradition, Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, has two competing synagogues, Shavei Israel’s Khovevei Tsion and the B’nei Menashe Council’s Shlom Tsion – or, as it is generally known despite the ungrammatical Hebrew, Shalom Tsion. Today, after Shalom Tsion’s rejection of a Khovevei Tsion proposal for “the consolidation and merger of the B’nei Menashe community of Mizoram,” the community is as far away from unity as ever.
The two congregations’ separate existence dates back to 2004. It was then that followers of the newly founded Shavei Israel, directed by its chairman Michael Freund, broke away from Shalom Tsion, which was established in the 1990s under the guidance of the B’nei Menashe’s revered teacher Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail. As all Shavei-affiliated congregations were ordered to do, the new synagogue, named Khovevei Tsion, adopted the Sephardic liturgy in place of the Ashkenazi one taught by Rabbi Avichail --and as Shavei increasingly came to dominate B’nei Menashe life in Mizoram, much of Shalom Tsion’s membership left it for Khovevei Tsion. Today, over eighty percent of Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe belong to Khovevei Tzion, which moved in 2020 to new premises in the west Aizawl neighborhood of Chhangurkawn. Its attitude toward Shalom Tsion, in which it has warned Aizawl’s B’nei Menashe not to pray, has been hostile.
Thus, it came as a surprise when, a month ago, in early February, a delegation of Khovevei Tsion’s executive, headed by its chairman Yirmiyahu Hnamte, approached the B’nei Menashe Council’s treasurer Nadav Hrangliantawna, with an informal “peace proposal,” which was upgraded to a written one later in the month. Beginning with the statement, “Please accept the assurance of our highest regard for your service to the Lord as well as for your various endeavors,” this proposal was delivered to Shalom Tsion’s leadership as a nine-point plan in the form of the following questions:
“1. Do you agree to both our synagogues surrendering their respective by-laws and preparing new ones in their stead?
“2. Do you agree to join us in accepting the body that currently holds the reins and responsibilities for Aliyah?
“3. Do you agree to implement, as we presently do, the pro rata budget contributions required of each community member?
“4. Do you agree to accept the Sephardi liturgy and rites as we do?
“5. Do you agree to conduct community-wide elections for a single executive body before the beginning of the [Hebrew] month of Nisan [which starts this year on March 23]?
“6. Do you agree to implement a rotation of Bimah duties [i.e., synagogue tasks such as leading prayers, reading from the Torah, etc.] every two months?
“7. Do you agree to repudiate and proscribe the influence of bodies incapable of taking on responsibility for Aliyah, or any other third-party organizations, in the administration of the community?
“8. Do you agree to change the name of the B’nei Menashe Council Synagogue -- which is housed in the premises of what was formerly known as the Ohel Miriam Building in honor of the grandmother of Michael Freund, the pioneering figure in its founding and construction -- to the Ohel Miriam Synagogue?
“9. Do you agree to join us in pledging our allegiance to both Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail and Michael Freund, and to the Amishav and Shavei Israel organizations founded by them?”
These nine questions were phrased in ostensibly conciliatory language. And yet underneath their veneer of politeness, as Nadav Hranglianwtawna told our Newsletter, they were “a demand for Shalom Tsion’s total surrender.” Question 2, for example, called for acceptance of Shavei Israel’s monopoly on administering the B’nei Menashe’s Aliyah, even though this is something the BMC has vigorously campaigned against. Question 4 demanded that Shalom Tsion abandon the Ashkenazi liturgy that it has faithfully maintained since the days of Rabbi Avichail. Question 7 would have required it to cut its ties with the BMC and other supporting organizations such as Degel Menashe. Questions 8 and 9 would humiliatingly have forced it to honor Michael Freund, who not only had nothing to do with the “founding and construction” of Shalom Tsion but sought to destroy it and to uproot Rabbi Avichail’s memory.
Questions 1, 3, 5, and 6, too, it was pointed out, while appearing more neutral, were not so at all, since a positive answer to them would have subjected Shalom Tsion’s conduct of its internal affairs to the majority rule of a community dominated by Khovevei Tsion and would have spelled the end of its independence. As Zalman Zadeng, chairman of the Israeli branch of Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe Council, put it: “Shalom Tsion's doors are always open to whoever wishes to pray there, but those who come can’t expect to impose their practices on us. We have our ways and they need to be respected.”
Shalom Tsion’s executive has not yet answered the Khovevei Tsion proposal in writing, nor is it certain that it will do so. “We are studying the matter and will respond accordingly,” was all BMC chairman Gamliel Thansiama would say. But a flat no has already been delivered orally. “I’ve consulted with our board members and congregation,” says Nadav Hrangliantawna, “and they object to the Khovevei Tsion proposal overwhelmingly. None of its conditions are acceptable to us. I’ve spoken to Moshe Hnamte, Khovevei Tsion’s treasurer, and told him so.”
Why after all these years did Khovevei Tsion make its overture to Shalom Tsion? “It all comes down to money,” our Newsletter was told by a knowledgeable member of the B”nei Menashe community in Aizawl. “Shavei Israel in Mizoram is hard-pressed for funds these days. The support it once received from the organization’s main office in Jerusalem has diminished greatly, and the rental and upkeep of the Khovevei Tsion building in Chhangurkawn are expensive. Shavei in Mizoram simply can’t afford it any more. If it could get control of the Shalom Tsion building, which is owned by the B’nei Menashe Council, it could move its services there, shut down the synagogue in Chhangurkawn, and keep from going bankrupt. It’s as simple as that.”