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ORT India to Back B’nei Menashe School

(May 19) ORT India, a branch of World ORT, international Jewry’s largest non-governmental vocational training organization, has agreed to enter into a partnership with Aizawl’s new Eliyahu Avichail School. Named for the late Israeli rabbi who brought normative Orthodox Judaism to Northeast India, the school, which is supported financially by the B’nei Menashe Council and Degel Menashe and is affiliated with a similarly named school in Churachandpur, opened recently under the direction of Aizawl educator Asaf Renthlei. Renthlei holds an M.A. degree in sociology from New Delhi’s Jawarhalal Nehru University and is currently enrolled in a doctoral program at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology.

Asaf Renthlei.

The agreement concludes months of talks between the school and ORT officials in Mumbai. “Basically,” Renthei told our Newsletter, “our plan is to develop, with ORT’s help, a vocational training program in addition to the Jewish studies program that we already have. We’ll start with computers, and hopefully branch out as we grow into other areas, such as mechanics, carpentry, plumbing, and so forth. The idea is both to prepare younger students for careers in Israel and to help them find gainful employment while still in Mizoram.” A major problem with many B’nei Menashe immigrants to Israel, Renthlei pointed out, is that they arrive there past school age without professional skills and so end up in low-paying jobs in factories or the services.

According to Renthlei, ORT will bear the financial costs of the computer education track while the Jewish track will continue to be the responsibility of the B’nei Menashe Council and Degel Menashe. The ORT-backed program will begin with a Course on Computer Concepts that will follow Indian government guidelines and equip students with a command of word processing and of power point and spreadsheet usage. Culminating in government certification, it will give its graduates skills needed for the job market.

The course will consist of four months of five weekly hours of study, consisting of two weekday evenings of theory and an intensive practical workshop on Sundays. Its first class, Renthlei says, is already oversubscribed, with 16 applicants for ten places, but with three such rounds in the course of a year, it will be possible to accommodate up to 30 students.

A Jewish studies class.

At the same time, Aizawl’s Avichail School will continue with its program of Jewish studies, which includes Bible, Jewish law, prayer, and ritual, Jewish and Israeli history, and elementary Hebrew. The school, Renthlei told our Newsletter, is now looking for permanent quarters while meeting for the time being in private homes. Unlike the computer program, which will be geared to younger people, the Jewish studies program is open to all ages. Although Renthlei concedes that such an approach is problematic, since the older students tend to be less intellectually flexible and sometimes slow down the pace of the lessons, he believes that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Because the B’nei Menashe, he says, have almost always joined Judaism as families rather than as isolated individuals, it makes sense for their instruction in Judaism to take place on a multi-generational basis.

Asked by our Newsletter about its agreement with the Aizawl school, ORT officials in Mumbai confirmed its existence while preferring not to discuss details until a formal contract is drawn up. ORT was initially wary about getting involved with B;’nei Menashe education because of a bad experience in the early 2000s, when it opened computer courses in Churachandpur that had to be terminated after Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based NGO in charge of B’nei Menashe Aliyah, took control of the community’s administration. One of Shavei’s first acts was to order ORT to pack up and leave, presumably because it did not want to share what it considered its exclusive territory with another Jewish organization.

“We spent a long time negotiating with the Eliyahu Avhichail School in Aizawl,” says an ORT official in Mumbai, “because we had been burned once and wanted to make sure it did not happen again. We’re satisfied now that it won’t and hope to formalize our agreement in the near future.”



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