Sderot: The Town the B’nei Menashe Chose For Themselves
Updated: Dec 15, 2023
(August 24, 2023) On the whole, Israel’s B’nei Menashe have not, when arriving in the country as new immigrants, been given any choice about where to live. No one has asked them what their preferences might be. Nearly all have been sent, after consultation between government offices and Shavei Israel, the Jerusalem-based NGO that has been in charge of their Aliyah, to one of many towns that have been picked out for them. In the last two decades, these have been in the country’s north, to such Upper and Lower Galilee locations as Ma’alot, Karmiel, Migdal ha-Emek, Tzfat [Safed], Kiryat Shmona, Afula, and especially in the last several years, Nof ha-Galil, the former Upper Nazareth. The decision has been made on the basis of the availability of housing, the willingness of local municipalities to absorb B’nei Menashe immigrants, and various other factors, none of which has been the desires of the immigrants themselves. Presumably, they have not known enough to make their own decisions – and whatever they did know, others knew better.
One town is an exception to this. Although it is not in the north and not a single B’nei Menashe has been told to live in it by either the government or Shavei, it is today home to one of the largest, and and arguably the most satisfied, B’nei Menashe communities in Israel. It is the town of Sderot in the northwest Negev, some 50 kilometers south of Tel Aviv and barely five kilometers from the Gaza Strip, which has put it within easy range of the rockets fired at it in every exchange between Israel and Hamas. And yet just as this not stopped Sderot’s population from increasing by a third in the last ten years to its present size of 30,000, so it has not stopped B’nei Menashe from moving to it.
“I’d be lying if I told you that the rockets don’t cause some fear and tension,” says 42-year-old Rabbi David Lhungdim, the local B’nei Menashe community’s rabbi and acknowledged leader. “But as one of our members who served in the Indian army once said to me, ‘It’s hard enough to hit a target you’re aiming at with a rifle – what are the chances of being hit by a wildly fired rocket?’ We take the precautions we’re told to take by the authorities and leave the rest up to God.”
When Rabbi Lhungdim, who came to Israel in 2007, settled in Sderot in 2009, there were just three B’nei Menashe families there, all who had moved to it from the north. “I was living in Karmiel at the time,” he told us, “along with 20 other B’nei Menashe families who were sent there after completing their Jewish conversion at an absorption center. Things didn’t go well in Karmiel. We had trouble finding jobs and the people responsible for us – I don’t want to mention names – were not doing their work properly. We heard that life was better in Sderot, where no one was responsible for the three B’nei Menashe families living there but themselves, and that plenty of jobs were available there, and some of us visited the town. We liked what we saw, and about 15 families from Karmiel moved to Sderot as a group.”
Lhungdim, who received his rabbinical training at the Yeshiva of Sderot, continues:
“Life in Sderot went by pleasantly and uneventfully until 2014, when I was asked by Shavei Israel to oversee a group of new B’nei Menashe immigrants who were staying at an absorption center in Kfar Hasidim, near Haifa. My main responsibility was to give them daily lesson in Judaism and Jewish law in preparation for their conversion. When I went back to live in Sderot after that was over, it was with new ideas and a sense of mission. I wanted to start something different. Nowhere in Israel, I realized, did the B’nei Menashe have a synagogue of their own. Why not in Sderot?”
A local rabbi, Menachem Gamliel, offered to help. “He was a wonderful man,” Lhungdim says. “He found us a town-owned building that was standing unused and convinced the municipality to give it to us. Volunteers from our community pitched in to renovate it and our Alfei Menashe prayer house was born. Sderot was a small town. Everyone in the community lived within walking of the synagogue and every Shabbat we had a full house. One day Rabbi Gamliel dropped by for prayers and was so impressed that that he arranged for us to get our own Torah scroll, whose arrival we celebrated a few days later. Now we had a real B’nei Menashe house of worship! This was in 2015. Early in 2016, we were joined by a new contingent, a group of families from Tzfat that almost doubled our numbers. You could say they were fugitives from there.”
And let us now interrupt Rabbi Lhungdim’s story to hear from one of the Tzfat “fugitives,” 71-year-old Yaacov Tuboi. He had this to say:
“When my family and I landed in Israel in December, 2014, it was dream come true. After three months in Kfar Chasidim, where we studied with Rabbi Lhungdim and underwent out conversions, we and 30 other families were given apartments in Tzfat. The mayor had come to an agreement with Shavei Israel whereby he promised to do all he could to make us feel welcome.
“We moved to Tzfat full of hope and optimism. We didn’t have jobs yet, and apart from taking Hebrew lessons and continuing our religious studies we spent many days discussing how to administer our community. A va’ad [Hebrew for “committee] was formed for that purpose and I was chosen to be ‘vice-chairman’ despite my protests that I didn’t know Hebrew and wasn’t fit for the role. I was told not to argue, because someone ‘higher up’ had made the decision and I shouldn’t make a fuss about it.”
The “higher-up” was from Shavei Israel. “I fully realized the situation,” Tuboi relates, “when one day our va’ad was summoned for a meeting with the mayor. We all came to it – the chairman, the secretary, the finance secretary, the local Shavei coordinator, and myself, all of us appointed by Shavei. A few days later, Tsvi Khaute [Shavei’s national director] turned up and scolded us for daring to meet with the mayor without asking Shavei for permission. Everyone but me was too frightened of him to speak up. As the months went by, it became clearer and cleare that our va’ad was just a rubber stamp. All the decisions were being made by the ‘higher ups.” I didn’t like that one bit.”
This article, the first of a two-part series, will be continued next week.