At The Absorption Center: Part II of Demsat Haokip's Story

Updated: Aug 13

In the end, we made it to Israel despite my refusal to sign the loyalty oath that Shavei demanded of me. Perhaps Shavei was worried about the negative publicity it was getting in cases of Aliyah discrimination like mine. Even then, though, it squeezed the last drop of satisfaction from putting me through the wringer by keeping me and my family in the dark until practically the last moment. Two weeks before the departure for Israel of the last group of B’nei Menashe who had passed the 2014-15 interviews, long after all the others had been informed of it, we received word that we would be joining them.


It was a victory of sorts, though not a complete one, because my son Menashe was not allowed to come with us. The reason was that in 2015, a year after his Aliyah interview, he married a B’nei Menashe girl who had not been interviewed and Shavei struck him from the Aliyah list instead of including her, too. It was terribly unfair, but that was Shavei’s policy.

The homes in which the B’nei Menashe olim were housed.

Our group of 250 immigrants arrived in Israel in October, 2021 and was taken straight to an absorption center in Goren, a moshav in the Upper Galilee near Ma’alot, where we were housed in homes for vacationers. There were 12 to 15 of these houses, located on a gentle slope overlooking a forest. My family of eight was allotted two rooms in one of these houses, each room with four beds. One of them, which came with a bathroom, was shared by me, my wife, and our two younger children, while the other was occupied by the four older children, who had to use our facilities. It was a tight fit, but I didn’t complain.


We settled quickly into the routine that was to be ours for the next five months. Our days were mostly spent in shi’urim {religious lessons]. These were supervised by a Shavei administrator, Aharon Singson, who was assisted by four teachers. A typical day began with a wake-up at 6 am. Shacharit [the morning prayer] began at 6:45 and typically lasted until 8. We were then served breakfast, consisting of bread, eggs, butter , cheese, milk, and tea or coffee. The shiurim, for which we were divided into four or five groups of several dozen pupils, began at 9. At around 12:30 there was a break for mincha {the afternoon prayer], lunch, and some free time, after which there were more classes from 3 pm to 6:30, when we broke again for arvit [the evening prayer] and supper. After supper, Aharon Singson gave all of us together another shiur, which usually lasted from 8 to 10 or even 11. By then, it was time for bed.

The forest around Goren.

The shiurim dealt with the weekly Torah portion, and with Jewish law and custom, and were meant to prepare us for our giyyur [conversion] interviews with a bet-din [rabbinic court}. There was, as far as I could make out, no rhyme or reason to any of it – not why we studied one subject at one time and another at another time, nor why some of the classes lasted an hour, some half-an-hour. It was all random, according to whatever mood the teacher was in on a given day. There wasn’t a single class in Jewish or Israeli history. We learned nothing about Israel itself or Israeli life. We were taught no Hebrew beyond the alphabet. We never met or talked with even one Israeli, including the residents of Goren. We were never taken on a single trip. All we saw of the country we had come to live in was a children’s park in the village that our children had almost no time to play in, and the forest on the village’s edge. You could sometimes see wild animals there, such as deer, foxes, and a lot of wild boar, and I liked watching them. Otherwise, it was religion and prayer, prayer and religion, all the time.


I suppose we had to know all that for the rabbis. But there was no excuse for the food, which was simply terrible. To begin with, although the mainstay of a B’nei Menashe diet is rice, the staff at Goren did not know how to make rice the way we ate it. The rice was always half-cooked and made with oil and salt, whereas we traditionally used only water; this led to constant stomach problems that made us dyspeptic much of the time, although we were never sick enough to be allowed to skip our classes, despite all the gas that was passed in them. The fried schnitzel, cold cuts, and other meat that we were served were foreign to our taste, and the salads, not all the ingredients of which I could identify, were far too bland. Some chilies would have vastly improved their taste! No one seemed to realize that we like our food to spicy. And why did there have to be so much sugar in everything? I can understand sugar in cakes, tea and the like, but why put it in a chicken dish, which is something no B’nei Menashe would dream of doing? Given all the money that was spent on our upkeep, I would have thought that one of our brothers or sisters might have been asked to cook for us. Everybody would have gained from it.


After four or five months of this, we were deemed ready to face the dayanim [rabbinical judges.]. For this we were divided into groups of six or seven families, numbering 30 to 40 in a group, and bused to Haifa. It took several days to complete the process, and given my standing with Shavei, it came as no surprise to me that our family was in the last group and was the last family in that group to be called. We were used to that from Manipur.


“Demsat and his family dressed for the Bet-Din. From left to right: Ahava, Rakhel, Leah, Demsat Yosef and his wife, Osnat, Leora and Rivka. Sara is in the front.

As we were ushered into the Bet-Din by Tzvi Khaute [Shavei Israel’s chief administrator], I saw Michael Freund [Shavei’s founder and chairman] seated at the back of the room. The interview began. I was asked about Joseph in the Bible. I told the whole story – how he was the favorite of Jacob, and how his jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, and how he was falsely accused and imprisoned, and how he was taken from his prison cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, and all the rest. When I finished, the next question was about how to remove a bone from a cooked fish on Shabbat. I answered that since there is a prohibition on forcibly separating objects on the Sabbath, one should use one's teeth rather than one’s fingers to detach the bone from the flesh. Each of my family was then asked in turn a Torah question followed by a halakhic question. The interview must have lasted over an hour, and I assumed we did well, because there were a lot of tov me’ods [“very good”s] after each answer.


When the interview was over, we were told to wait outside. I was expecting us to be called back in to recite the Shema Yisra’el [the “Hear O Israel” prayer, the Jewish proclamation of faith] but it didn’t turn out that way. After a few minutes, Tzvi Khaute came out from the rabbis’ chamber and informed us that we had failed the interview.


I didn’t know what to think. I felt helpless, numb. And yet I wasn’t entirely surprised. It was typical of the way Shavei had tormented me from the beginning. Tsvi wielded a lot of power. He controlled things. If he wanted us to fail the interview and be sent back to India, or simply to be worried sick, he could easily have asked the dayanim for that favor. There was nothing I could do about it.


That evening, Tzvi sent one of his men, Chanan Singsit, to summon me to a meeting with him. I knew what he would want: for me to beg for forgiveness and plead that my family be allowed to complete its giyyur so that it could live in Israel. I told Chanan that I wasn’t going to any meeting. I was not, I said, going to be bullied, and I would sooner be sent back to Manipur than have to knuckle under.


Chanan reported back and Tsvi sent another person to talk to me. This time, after much argument, my family insisted that I see Tsvi. I went to meet him the next day at his Goren office. When I got there he asked, “What do you have against me?” and told me that my family would have to appear before the dayyanim again “What good would that do?” I asked. “We’ll be failed this time, too. Do I have to remind you that it was I who, as vice-chairman of Congregation Bet-Shalom in Churachandpur, taught Judaism to many of those who passed the interview? They still still know less than I do, but they got through it and I didn’t.”

We ended the meeting with my reluctantly agreeing to appear with my family again before the Bet-Din. This time the interview was short. I was the only one asked a question, and all I was asked was to recite the Shabbat evening Kiddush [blessing over wine]. I hadn’t needed five months of shiurim for that! We were informed we had passed and we were all told to say the Shema.

(Next week: Demsat is settled in Nof Hagalil.)