In Manipur, Ma’oz Tsur Doesn’t Wait for Hanukkah
(October 23) It’s no longer called Suongpi, which means “big rock” in Kuki. In honor of the first five B’nei Menashe families to take up occupancy in their newly constructed home at the site last week, it has been renamed Ma’oz Tsur, Hebrew for “fortress of the rock” – or, as the Hanukkah candle-lighting song of that name is traditionally known in English, “Rock of Ages.”
The five are among over one hundred B’nei Menashe families that lost their homes, possessions, and livelihoods in the civil strife between Meiteis and Kukis (to which latter group the B’nei Menashe belong) that broke out in Manipur last May, resulting in widespread ethnic cleansing, particularly of Kukis from the low-lying hills bordering on Manipur’s Meitei-dominated Central Valley. Many of the displaced B’nei Menashe families have found temporary shelter with relatives in Manipur; others have fled to neighboring Mizoram, where most are staying at a large government refugee camp near the town of Thingdawl.
Sitting on 200 acres put at the disposal of the B’nei Menashe by Lalam Hangshing, chairman of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council, Ma’oz Tsur is situated some seven kilometers south of the center of Lamka, formerly Churachandpur, Manipur’s second largest city and its main stronghold of Kuki life. Already two years ago, when he offered the land to the community, Hangshing dreamed of building on it what he called “a B’nei Menashe kibbutz.” Now, in becoming a reality, this dream has taken on a new meaning. Ma’oz Tsur, Hangshing hopes, will provide housing for a large number of displaced B’nei Menashe in an environment in which they can live cooperatively while supporting themselves from the land, growing food for sale and their own consumption, and raising poultry and livestock.
Ma'oz Tsur’s first residence, whose construction began a little over two months ago, was completed right after Sukkot. The 120 x 25 foot building, its main materials bamboo, plywood, and corrugated tin, is divided into five units, each housing a family, plus a communal kitchen. Two auxiliary sheds will in the meantime accommodate additional residents. “Our hope,” says Jesse Gangte, B’nei Menashe Council treasurer and the Ma’oz Tsur project’s director, “is that this first building will serve as a pilot that grows into a fully functioning community with its own synagogue, school, and community center. The demand is great. We already have more than a dozen applications from other displaced families, and all that is keeping us from erecting houses for them is a lack of funds. The building that has now been occupied cost about $8,000, that is, $1,600 per family, and we should be able to put up future structures even more cheaply.”
"Ma’oz Tzur has given us new hope,” says Shem Haokip, who supervised construction of the building and heads one of the families that have moved into it. “Our goal is to stand on our own feet and contribute all we can to creating and sustaining a community. We’re still in the process of settling in. We have electricity and water tanks to which the water is trucked, although we hope that’s only a temporary solution. There’s a stream running through the property from which water can be piped, and if we dam it at some point, we can also have a commercial fish pond. We have the will and the know-how to do many things. It’s only a matter of money.”.
Reuven Haokip, whose family is also among Ma’oz Tsur’s first residents, is equally optimistic. “I’m honored to be living here and proud to have helped build our first home,” he says. “With God's help we’ll turn this into the first all-Bnei Menashe village. I know that’s a long way off. At the moment, we don't even have a minyan for prayers, but we’re planning to invite friends for each Shabbat so that we can at least have a full service then. One of our families is headed by Shimon Thomsong, who taught Judaism at the Eliyahu Avichail School and will be our religious leader. We have plenty of land and can turn this into a cooperative farm that will fulfill all our needs and even more. The potential is endless.”