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Degel Menashe Board Meets At End of Year

(January 7) At a year-end Zoom meeting last week, Degel Menashe’s board of directors met to review the organization’s 2021 accomplishments and to look ahead to 2022. The meeting was held almost exactly two years after the organization’s official founding in December, 2019 as an Israel government-recognized non-profit NGO.

After opening the board meeting, executive director Yitzhak Thangjom called on Hillel Halkin, the board’s chairman, to give a report on Degel Menashe’s activities in the past year. This included:

1. The Degel Menashe Website, which now has concluded its second year of operations, too. Its weekly newsletter \covers B’nei Menashe and Degel Menashe affairs and has a regular readership, the report said, of 600 viewers, whose number often doubles when items of special interest appear. Although off to a good start, this audience needs to be increased. The Website’s appeal can be heightened by such things as running a weekly editorial, reviving the now dormant Letters to the Editor section, and creating an Index of published articles that would enable them to be easily referenced. Thought should also be given, Halkin suggested, to changing the Website’s current operating template, which while easy to use, is highly restrictive in the options it offers.

Scholarship recipients, file photo.

2. The Degel Menashe academic scholarship program. Under the direction of board member Batel Rently and with the continued help of a New Mexican Jewish donor who has preferred to remain anonymous, Degel Menashe was able to expand this program once again in 2021. From six scholarship recipients in 2019 and 14 in 2020, it reached 17 young B’nei Menashe this past year, all pursuing higher studies in different institutions in Israel. The total sum dispersed to them, averaging 40 percent of their tuition fees, also grew from previous years.

One new aspect of the 2021 program, Halkin’s report stated, is its stipulation that all scholarship winners devote 12 hours of volunteer work during the year to the B’nei Menashe community. Scholarship winners will be encouraged to work together in teams when they share interests or places of residence.

3. The Degel Menashe leadership project. Less successful than the scholarship program, the report stated, was 2021’s attempt to launch a leadership training program for young B’nei Menashe under the auspices of board member Dr. Reuven Gal and Israel’s Institute for Quality Leadership. Although a preliminary workshop with Dr. Gal in late April was attended by 11 Bnei Menashe youngsters and generated great enthusiasm, the Institute’s suggested program called for more hours of their time than many of the workshop’s participations felt able to commit themselves to. The project has therefore been suspended, though the possibility remains of reviving it at a future date.

4. The Degel Menashe oral history project. Consisting of oral history interviews with scores of B’nei Menashe elders in Israel, all of whom were involved in the early years of the B’nei Menashe movement in India, this project, it was reported, has resulted in a book called Lives of The Children of Manasia that will be published in English by Gefen Books of Jerusalem in the course of 2022, The book comprises edited versions of 12 of the most interesting of these interviews, plus an Introduction, Afterword, and Glossary. Taken together, the interviews fully tell the story of the B’nei Menashe and their origins for the first time, dispelling many myths while presenting a complex and compelling narrative of their own. Fascinating reading in their own right, they will constitute, Halkin said, to be a basic reference work on the B’nei Menashe for scholars and historians of the future.

In addition, the oral history project is now continuing and seeking new informants in Manipur. In charge of it there is the journalist Mang Taithul, who will be conducting additional interviews under Degel Menashe’s direction.

Baite and Troupe at a practice session.

5. The Degel Menashe musicology project. For several reasons, the chairman’s report stated, this project, whose goal is to collect and record traditional B’nei Menashe music and singing before they are forgotten, has yet to fulfill its initial promise. Although one successful recording session was held in Kiryat Arba in 2020, several factors have impeded further progress. Among them have been the Covid epidemic, which made it extremely difficult to bring singers together (nearly all traditional B’nei Menashe music is performed in groups); the illness or incapacity of elderly members of the B’nei Menashe community in Israel who still know the old musical traditions; and the opposition of Shavei Israel, which having fought all Degel Menashe projects with threats against those taking part in them has fought this one as well.

As a result, the report said, the project’s focus has now shifted to Manipur, where a musically talented member of the B’nei Menashe community with a good knowledge of traditional music, Sarah Baite, has been put in charge of it. Baite is now in the process of contacting and organizing other B’nei Menashe who know and can perform these traditions along with her.

With this, the chairman’s report moved from Israel to India, where Degel Menashe has stepped up its activities, These have been concentrated, he said, in three areas: 1. The "Lakoi" or traditional/folk songs, 2. Children songs and 3. Recent proto-Judaic compositions from 60s and 70s.

6. Degel Menashe’s Hebrew school projects in Mizoram and Manipur. After a tentative start interrupted by lengthy school closures occasioned by the Covid epidemic, this project resumed in October, 2021, after the Jewish holidays, and has been developing quickly. Two remarkable young B’nei Menashe, one in Mizoram and one in Manipur, are directing it. In Mizoram, the director is Asaf Renthlei, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from St. Stephen’s College and Jawaharlal Nehru University, respectively, and is currently working on a Ph.D. In Manipur, it is Ohaliav Haokip. who has a degree in aerospace engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, and additional degrees in economics and computer applications.

The aim of both the Mizoram and Manipur programs, whose students include children, adolescents, and adults, is to instill an elementary facility in reading Hebrew, a familiarity with the basic sources of Jewish tradition, especially the Bible, and a greater knowledge of Jewish customs and observance. At present, the Manipur program has enrolled over 100 students spread over four regional centers, of which the main one is in Churachandpur, while the Mizoram program has some 20 students in Aizawl, from which it hopes to spread out, too. This program has been funded by a grant from the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, and its directors are now negotiating with ORT, the worldwide Jewish educational network whose Indian center is in Mumbai, in the hope of involving them, too.

Classes in progress at the newly opened schools at Manipur and Mizoram.

File photo of food distribution.

7. The Degel Menashe food relief program. Following three rounds in 2020 of emergency food distribution to B’nei Menashe in northeast India thrown out of work by the Covid epidemic, two more rounds were conducted in 2021 with the help of donations from the Jewish Federation of New Mexico and the San Franciso-based organization Scattered Among the Nations. Twenty tons of rice and cooking oil were distributed in Manipur and Mizoram to some 300 needy families -- a significant decrease from 2020, Halkin reported, because Shavei Israel was more successful in its scare campaign designed to prevent acceptance of aid from Degel Menashe. This campaign was bolstered in 2021 by the Aliyah, under Shavei Israel’s auspices, of over 700 B’nei Menashe to Israel, which heightened the impact of Shavei’s threat to bar anyone having contact with Degel Menashe from future Aliyah lists.

8. Degel Menashe’s ongoing struggle to break the monopoly on the B’nei Menashe Aliyah process granted to Shavei Israel by the Israeli government. This struggle, Halkin said, has known many ups and downs, which occurred in 2021 too. This was a year in which, on the one hand, Degel Menashe met with high Ministry of Immigration and Jewish Agency officials, including former Agency chairman Isaac Herzog; forwarded to both the Ministry and the Agency petitions signed by over a thousand B’nei Menashe in India and Israel who asked to be freed from Shavei Israel’s domination; helped organize anti-Shavei demonstrations in Churachandpur, Aizawl, and Tel Aviv; and collaborated with former Likud cabinet minister and present Knesset member Miri Regev in taking her anti-Shavei fight to the Knesset floor. Yet it was also a year in which the Ministry of Immigration and the Jewish Agency, despite repeated promises to take action, chose to remain on the sidelines and let Shavei’s Aliyah monopoly continue. The struggle, Halkin said, would be carried into 2022, and there were reasons for optimism that it would eventually succeed.

The last topic on the board meeting’s agenda was that of the chairman’s post. At their previous meeting, Halkin reminded the board members, he had indicated his desire to step down and be replaced. He felt, he had said then, that Degel Menashe had accomplished a tremendous amount in a short period and that he would be leaving it to his successor in good administrative and financial shape. Yet at last week’s Zoom meeting it transpired that such a person had yet to be found, and Halkin agreed to continue as board chairman on a pro tempore basis.



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