New BMC School Opens – And Closes -- In Churachandpur
(May 11) For the first time in its history, the B’nei Menashe community of Manipur had its own school…for half a week. Then the flare-up of Covid19, which has been taking a savage toll all over India, led to a statewide lockdown and the school was forced to shut down.
“We’ll reopen as soon as the lockdown is over,” says the school’s director Ohaliav Haokip, General Secretary of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council, which is sponsoring the new school. “We have 56 students already registered, although we started with only 14. This was because we had planned – and still plan – to use the facilities of the Beit Shalom synagogue in Churachandpur, and even before the total lockdown, there was a ban on gatherings in all places of public worship. This forced us to start in a private home, where space was limited. Once the synagogue is available to us, we’ll be able to accommodate all who have registered and still more.”
Ranging in age from five to 17, and joined by several curious adults, the 14 students met from 6 to 8 pm in the home of BMC executive member Nechemia Lhouvum. Although all can read and write, only five, Haokip told our Newsletter, have been going to public school. “The others have had no access to formal education” he explained. “Most come from B’nei Menashe families that originated in Nagaland and Assam and moved to Churachandpur years ago when told by Shavei Israel to gather here in preparation for their Aliyah to Israel. Yet that Aliyah never took place, and the families, deprived of their lands and former occupations, were reduced to working as day laborers in the lowest-wage jobs. None could afford to send their children to private schools, and the public school system in Manipur is barely functional. Many government schools exist only in name. Teachers draw salaries but don’t teach or are absent most of the time, and although there are no tuition fees, admission and registration fees have to be paid. These, too, are more than many families can come up with. ”
In its present form, the new school, whose small budget comes from a grant from the Jewish Federation of New Mexico, resembles the proverbial “little red schoolhouse.” Its two teachers, Gideon Lhouvum and Shlomo Vaiphei, will divide the instruction between them, Gideon being responsible for Hebrew and Jewish subjects and Shlomo for English, arithmetic, and science. “Our aim,” says Haokip, “is to develop a curriculum that will help equip B’nei Menashe youngsters for life in Israel once they get there. This would mean as much Hebrew and Jewish knowledge as possible, and a sufficient grounding in secular subjects to enable them to succeed in Israeli schools.”
For the moment, though, all this seems a distant dream. “We don’t have any Hebrew speakers in our community,” Haokip says, “so all we can do right now is teach these children to read without comprehension and follow the words in the prayer book and the Bible. Perhaps in the future, volunteers from Israel will help make up for this. We don’t yet have proper textbooks, either, neither in Hebrew nor in other subjects. We simply don’t have the money for them.”
Still, Haokip told us, the new school has aroused great interest and excitement in the B’nei Menashe community. “We’re already getting requests from other places, and even from distant villages, to open similar schools for them. I’ve told them that if this first project succeeds, we’ll expand it. But we need outside help: funds, books, teachers. Perhaps Israel and the world Jewish community will provide some of it.”
And the new school’s name?
“It doesn’t have one yet,” was the answer. “We’re open to suggestions.”