In Nof Hagalil: Part III Of Demsat Haokip’s Story
In two previous installments, Demsat Haokip told of his Aliyah from Manipur and his family’s stay in an Absorption Center in Israel. This week his story continues with his family’s first months in Nof Hagalil, the former city of Upper Nazareth, to which his group of 250 immigrants was sent.
We were still at the Absorption Center when the day for our giyyur [conversion] arrived. A few days previously, all the males in our group were required to perform a tipat dam [symbolic circumcision], even though we had all been circumcised before joining the B’nei Menashe community in Manipur. On the day of the conversion, we were taken to a mikveh [ritual bath]. We were three families, some 20 or so people, men and women apart. The three adult males were brought to the bath one by one. As usual, I was last. Several rabbis were present. I was told to take off my clothes while one of them examined my circumcision. After a good look, he seemed satisfied, because I was signaled to descend the steps into the water. Then I was signaled again to immerse myself completely. I dunked for a second or two, surfaced, and was told to recite the Shema Yisra’el [the “Hear O Israel” prayer]. Then I stepped out of the water and dried myself with a towel. It was little more than a formality for me, since I had already felt fully Jewish before this.
There was one other notable event before leaving the Absorption Center. Now that we were converted, all the married couples in our group of 250 immigrants were remarried according to Jewish law. This was done ten couples at a time. Before the ceremony, I was asked to sign a ketubah [halakhic marriage contract] along with two witnesses. The ten couples were lined up, a rabbi standing at one end gave a short speech that none of us understood, and the seven traditional blessings were said, several of them by Shavei Israel representatives. Then all the husbands recited “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither” and in unison broke a glass placed under each one’s foot. This was followed by dancing and music, and some food.
Meanwhile, Shavei Israel was making preparations for our move to Nof Hagalil. Its representatives were given the job of finding rental housing for us there. I suppose they tried matching the size of available apartments to the size of our families, but we ourselves weren’t consulted about any of it. Nobody asked us whether we wished to live in Nof Hagalil, and nobody asked where we wanted to live in it. We were simply told, “This is where you’ll be.”
Most of us were given furnished apartments with three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen with a refrigerator and stove. The only thing we had to buy was a living-room table, and we bought a cheap plastic one. The younger families with fewer children were given two bedrooms. Our monthly rent was 2,500 shekels and we had to sign a lease that runs until the end of this year.
There was only one other B’nei Menashe family in the building. Our Israeli neighbors are nice, but since we know no Hebrew, we have no way of talking to them. . It would have been very helpful if we could have been absorbed into an existing B’nei Menashe community, one with people who had been living in Israel for at least a few years and whom we could have communicated with and been helped by.
Hebrew was and is a big problem. When we first arrived in Nof Hagalil, we were offered a daytime Hebrew course given in a large room provided by the municipality. Yet since none of the teachers could speak our language, and we couldn’t speak theirs, it was impossible to understand them. I learned nothing and eventually dropped out. We have to get along in sign language as best we can. When we go shopping, everything in the supermarket has a price displayed on it, so we pick things out, take them to the cashier, and pay for them, all without a word. If only we had been taught some conversational Hebrew in the Absorption Center, or back in Manipur, in all the years that we were waiting for our Aliyah!
A few days after arriving in Nof Hagalil, we were given our permanent Israeli ID cards, which meant we were now full Israeli citizens and entitled to a sal klita, an immigrant’s allowance of 8,000 shekels a year for the next half-year. When a Shavei representative handed them to us, however, we noticed that our daughter Rachel’s ID card was different; it was a temporary one that had to be renewed within a year. Since we couldn’t go to the Ministry of Interior office without Hebrew, we asked Shlomo Telngoh Haokip, the Shavei official in charge of assistance to the Nof Hagalil immigrants, to help us. He said he would but did nothing about it. When we asked him a second time, the result was the same. When Rachel gave birth in May, he didn’t answer our appeal for an ambulance to take her to the hospital. And after her son Yair was born and she wasn’t given the ma’anak ledah [birth allowance] that every new mother gets. Shlomo said to us when we went to him agian, “Look, I can’t do anything about it. Ask Tsvi Khaute [Shavei Israel’s chief administrator].” I sent Tsvi a WhatsApp message and he texted back, “Don’t worry. You’ve been taken care of until now and you’ll be taken care of from now on.” Given the way we’ve been taken care of until now, I have every reason to be worried!
That’s what we come to expect from Shavei. We have the telephone numbers of their counselors whom we’re supposed to call when we need assistance, but when we call them, they generally ignore us. It’s the same when you send them WhatApp messages. And if you do get to talk to them, they’re always telling you that they’re busy with someone else and have no time. Our problems are clearly not a priority for them. We need people who have some kindness and a genuine desire to help, not like them.
One thing Shavei did do was open bank accounts for us all, in which the immigrants’ allowance was deposited. Of the 8’000 shekels we receive every month, 2,500, as I said, goes for rent, another 2,500 for water, gas, electricity, and municipal taxes, and the remaining 3,000 is spent mainly on food. We can manage on that if we stick to eating meat once a week, on Shabbat. Our children’s education costs us nothing. The younger ones go to government schools in Nof Hagalil, while the three older girls were sent by Shavei Israel to religious boarding schools in Ma’alot and Acre. It’s all paid for by someone.
We were also given an initial loan of 6,000 shekels by Shavei to start us off with while waiting to get our allowance.. At one point, Shavei posted a WhatApp announcement that this loan was being converted into a grant and wouldn’t have to be repaid. Our happiness didn’t last long, though, because a week or so later a second announcement was posted that we would have to return the money after all, since it was needed for a new wave of Aliyah. That was in mid-May, three months ago. Since then, there’s no new wave of Aliyah wave in sight. I don’t know what others have done, but I’ll think about repayment after I get a better explanation.
Our allowance runs out at the end of August, after which we’ll be on our own. That leaves even older men like myself – I’m in my mid-fifties – with no choice but to find work. None of us actually went and looked for a job; with no way of talking to a prospective employer, how could we? The choices were limited in any case: we could either go to work in a factory or take a cleaning job. Shavei counselors came and told us what employment they had found for us, just as they had told us earlier what apartments we had been given. I was informed that I would be working at a factory that made robotic swimming pools cleaners, and the next day I was taken there.
The work assigned me was to pack the assembled robots for shipment. It wouldn’t have been hard if I had been able to sit down, but I wasn’t given a seat and had to stand on my feet all day long. It was too much for me and I quit after three days. Although I hadn’t been told what my pay would be, I was given 400 shekels for my three days of work, minus the cost of the work boots I was made to buy, which was deducted from my salary. Now I’m waiting for Shavei to find me another job. If we’re to make ends meet, my wife will have to work, too.
When we first arrived in Nof ha-Galil, we were like a bunch of blind people. Even today, after having been here for months, it’s still like that. No doubt the place is beautiful, with lovely views all around, but we’re too involved in groping our way from one thing to the next to notice them. If we at least had been concentrated in a single neighborhood, we could have taken comfort in each other’s company. Those of us who are lucky live close to one another, but most of us live far away. And now that most people have a job, we don’t even go to the same synagogue any more. We used to meet for prayers every day in a hall provided by the municipality, but there’s no time for it now that we have regular jobs. Some of us see each other at night in religion classes given by Shavei. Although we’re not forced to attend them, it’s made clear to us that we’re expected to.
There’s a joke going around that we’re still waiting for Aliyah – back to India. That’s more of an expression of frustration than anything else. I doubt that anyone in his right mind would actually return to Manipur. We waited for so many years to come to Israel and we’re not about to give up now that we’re here. We B’nei Menashe aren’t complainers. We do what’s asked of us and don’t grumble.