Newly Surfaced Document Sheds Light On BMC History
Updated: Nov 20, 2020
(November 19) The B’nei Menashe Council, elections to which earlier this month have been followed by a wrangle over its records (see the related story on this page), has a history going back to 1995. A brochure that recently reached our Newsletter tells the story of its origins, largely forgotten under the impact of subsequent events.
The brochure was published in 2001 as a “souvenir” to mark the 25th anniversary of the beginnings of Judaism in Mizoram and Manipur. Its author, Lemuel Henkhogin Haokip, was at the time the BMC’s General Secretary and is today a resident of Aizawl, the capital of Mizoram, where he holds the government post of regional superintendent of the Central Board of Indirect Tax and Customs.
The anniversary brochure, the complete text of which appears at the end of this article, gives a brief but illuminating account of northeast India’s Judaism movement, whose roots go thousands of years back to the Bible, on the one hand, and half a century, on the other, to several small Christian churches that sought to keep the biblical Sabbath and other Old Testament customs. The full saga of the emergence of Torah-observant Judaism from such a background under the guidance of Rabbi Eliahu Avichayil of Jerusalem and his organization Amishav is not related by the brochure, which concentrates on organizational developments. Of these, the BMC was among the most important.
The B’nei Menashe Council was preceded, so the brochure relates, by several other groups that sought to represent the Jewish congregations that sprang up in Mizoram and Manipur in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Immediately before it, in 1995, came The Chazzan Council, an organization headed by a combination of lay leaders and chazzanim, the prayer leaders of the different B’nei Menashe communities of Manipur.
Soon afterwards, a split led to the B’nei Menashe Council’s formation. “The idea behind the BMC,” our Newsletter was told by its first president, Jolly Michal Thangjom, who today lives in the Israeli town of Kiryat Arba, “was to be both more inclusive and less restricted to purely religious matters than was The Chazzan Council. We wanted to bring in all the B’nei Menashe communities of Mizoram and to function as an organization that would deal with all aspects of their lives.”
Within a year, in June 1996, the two groups merged again under the name of The B’nei Menashe Organization, which was changed to The B’nei Menashe Council in August 1997. Although it never managed to extend its activities to Mizoram, the BMC functioned from then on as the representative body of the B’nei Menashe of Manipur. Its officials were elected at General Meetings participated in by the entire B’nei Menashe community. These were held in Imphal, Manipur’s capital, to which B’nei Menashe congregants from outlying villages were bused to take part in democratic elections, held by secret ballot when the occasion called for them.
The anniversary brochure’s list of BMC activities in 2003-2004 shows how much it was involved in doing. This came to an end when Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based organization that pushed Amishav and Rabbi Avichayil aside, seized administrative control of the B’nei Menashe community in 2004. In order to bypass the BMC, it formed a handpicked body called The Shavei Fellowship, which took over the communal tasks and responsibilities that had previously been performed by the BMC. Although for the next ten years the BMC continued to hold intermittent elections, its officials were powerless, stripped of their former functions.
The BMC’s last elections were held in 2015. Following them, its two highest office holders, Chairman Avihu Singsit and Secretary Yitzhak Seimang Haokip agreed to appoint Tsvi Khaute, Shavei Israel’s chief administrator, as their official “advisor” Khaute’s “advice” was to hold no more elections, and thus, the BMC, whose bylaws called for balloting to be held every two years, effectively ceased to exist. .
Speaking to our Newsletter from Aizawl, Lemuel Henkhogin Haokip expressed his delight that the BMC has now been revived and that genuinely democratic elections have been held for its leadership once again. “This should have happened long ago,” he said. “If I hadn’t been posted by the Indian government outside of Manipur, I would have fought to see that it did. I’m sorry I’m not in Manipur to play a role now, but the news that others are fighting to bring democracy back to B’nei Menashe life makes me happy.”