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B’nei Menashe to be Represented in New Israeli Museum

(March 3) In a large new museum of Jewish life through the ages that will be housed in one of Jerusalem’s most historic buildings, the B’nei Menashe will have their own permanent exhibit. Although it won’t occupy much of the building’s 3,000 square meters of floor space, it will be a recognition, says Yitzhak Thangjom, Degel Menashe’s project manager, of the B’nei Menashe’s unique place among the world’s Jewish communities, Thangjom met last week to discuss Degel Menashe’s possible role in such an exhibit with the museum’s designated curator Hanan Benyahu and collector Nissim Moses, who has donated his large assemblage of Indian Jewish art and religious artifacts to the museum’s future Indian wing.

Yitzkhak Thangjom (standing behind chair) with Hanan Benyahu (standing) and Nissim Moses (seated)

The museum, a projected 50 million dollar project to be called in Hebrew Muzei’on Kehillot Yisra’el, “The Jewish Communities Museum,” is slated to open to the public in 2024. It will be located in the Schneller Building, historically known as the Syrian Orphanage, a stately structure, now in rundown condition, on Jerusalem’s north side, in the neighborhood of Mekor Baruch, not far from Me’ah She’arim. One of the first buildings to go up outside the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls, it was originally constructed in 1860, at the behest of the German Lutheran missionary Johann Ludwig Schneller, as a home for Christian children orphaned during that year’s civil war in Lebanon. It continued to function as an orphanage until the outbreak of World War II, when it and its grounds were turned into a British army base that was in turn taken over by the Israel Defense Force in 1948. Subsequently abandoned by the IDF, its ownership passed to the municipality of Jerusalem, which will be a co-partner in the project.

The original inspiration for the museum, our Newsletter was told by future curator Benyahu, came from Rabbi Ya’akov Hillel, a prominent Jerusalem rabbi, kabbalist, and prolific author who was born in India himself to parents belonging to its Baghdadi community. “Rabbi Hillel,” says Benyahu, “has long been, like many religious leaders in Israel, distressed by the alienation of the country’s secular youth from Judaism. It was his idea that the best way to overcome it would be by exposing this youth to the Jewish life of its own grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors, with whom it feels an instinctive identification even if it is no longer religiously observant itself. We want to develop in young Israelis an interest in Judaism based on their pride in their own families and communities, whose lives revolved around their Jewish content.”

The building under renovation

It is this sense of mission, Benyahu says, that distinguishes the planned Kehillot Yisra’el museum from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, itself about to reopen after a long shutdown for renovation, and justifies the existence of yet another major institution in Israel dedicated to a panoramic presentation of Jewish history. “The Diaspora Museum,” Benyahu says, “has been laid-back. It has seen its role as being more informational. We want to involve our audience in its Jewishness, to tell stories that will speak to it on a personal level and make it want to know more. It’s like the difference between swimming and diving. We want to give the visitors to our museum the tools with which to dive deep.into the Jewish past, which is to say, into their own past. We are building up a huge digitalized collection of texts and historical material that they will be able to reference within our walls. We already have two million pages of it in digital form.”

The museum will be divided into 22 wings – “one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet,” Benyahu notes –each devoted to a geographical area and its Jewish life. Indian Jewry will have its own wing, to be shared by its three traditional Jewish communities, the Baghdadi Jews, the Bene Israel Jews, and the Cochin Jews, who will now be joined by a fourth group: the B’nei Menashe. A significant part of its display will come from the family collection of Nissim Moses, which started, Moses told Isaac Thangjom, with his grandfather 150 years ago. A former engineer and executive in the Israel Aircraft Industry and its first Liason Director in India, is from a Bene Israel family himself.

From the Nissim Moses Collection

“The museum is aware,” Thangjom says, “that in curatorial terms, we B’nei Menashe are different from all other Jewish communities. We do not have an overtly Jewish past, which means that we have no Jewish artifacts, no Jewish art, and no relics of Jewish religious life to display. Nor was our community, which traditionally lived a simple life in the rain forests of Northeast India, rich in material possessions. But we do have a wealth of cultural traditions: our folklore, our music, our old ancesrral religion with its many embedded features from our ancient Israelite past. One of the goals of Degel Menashe is to collect and preserve these traditions before they are forgotten. That’s why the museum has turned to us. ‘You’re the only ones who can do it,’ Nissim Moses has said to me. “No one but Degel Menashe understands the importance of it. Now is the time! If it isn’t done in the immediate years ahead, it will be too late to do it afterwards.”



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