Some Show Bravery, Others Don’t, As Jankholun Kipgen Is Buried and Mourned
Updated: Jul 29, 2021
(July 29) Jangkholun Kipgen, the B’nei Menashe’s first Covid-19 fatality, was laid to rest and mourned this past week in his native village of Gamgiphai in central Manipur. Kipgen was buried in a grave dug on his family property after the B’nei Menashe community of Gamgiphai, under apparent orders from Shavei Israel, denied him a place in its cemetery. It did so in retribution for Jangkholun’s son Michael, currently hospitalized for Covid-19 too, having volunteered to take part in Degel Menashe’s Summer 2020 emergency food campaign that Shavei fought against tooth-and-nail. Ever since then, the Kipgens have been ostracized by the Gamgiphai community and barred from participating in its Jewish life.
Not only was Jangkholun denied burial with his fellow B”nei Menashe but the Gamgiphai community refused to let his family say Kaddish for him in its Beit Shalom synagogue during the Shiva week. “The irony and hypocrisy of it is staggering,” Ohaliav Haokip, general secretary of Manipur’s B’nei Menashe Council, commented to our Newsletter. “The same people who kicked Michael, and his wife, children, brothers, sisters, and parents out of their community had previously filled their bellies with the rice that he helped to distribute! What sin did Michael Kipgen commit by volunteering to feed his own people?”
Jangkholun Kipgen passed away early on the morning of July 23 at the Regional Institute of Medical Sciences hospital in Imphal. “I rushed there as soon as I heard the news,” relates Ohaliav Haokip. “We had to act quickly. It was Friday and Shabbat was just hours away. When an ambulance came to transfer the body from the hospital to the mortuary, there was no one to help. Not a soul from Gamgiphai was there. After a while, some B’nei Menashe from the Beit-El synagogue in Imphal arrived. Even then, it wasn’t easy to get the bureaucratic paperwork done and it was even harder to find a coffin, because shops were closed due to the Covid lockdown. We ran from place to place until we finally found a plain black box and headed back with it to the morgue. Oved Kipgen, Jangkholun’s son-in-law, and I put on protective Covid suits, placed the body in the coffin, and nailed it shut. It was afternoon by the time we got to Gamgiphai for the funeral.”
Ngamsei Haokip, chairman of the Beit-El synagogue, was not with the group from Imphal because he was indisposed that day. Still, he encouraged whoever could to join it. “It’s our duty to help every B”nei Menashe however we can,” he told our correspondent. “We worship the same God, so why should some of us be treated differently from others? If one of us thinks someone else has done wrong, it’s up to God, not us, to be the judge.”
The group from Imphal was joined at the funeral by a second contingent from the nearby village of Phalbung, one of the few in Manipur whose B’nei Menashe have refused to submit to Shavei Israel’s authority. Together, the two groups were enough for the minyan needed for the Kaddish to be said. “We did what was the least we could do,“ said the Phalbung’s leader, Yechiel Haokip. “I was very disturbed to hear of the way the Kipgens were treated. Helping to distribute rice last year was a mitzvah. Whoever was involved in it should be praised, not punished.”
Since Michael Kipgen was not permitted by the hospital to attend the funeral and say the Kaddish for his father, it was recited by Jangkholun’s son-in-law Oved Lun Kipgen, also a resident of Gamgiphai. In talking to us, Oved tried not to be too hard on his fellow villagers. “As the funeral was underway,” he said, “I could see people from Gamgiphai watching from a distance. I’m sure they must have shared our grief and wanted to join us, but they were afraid to bring down the wrath of Shavei by showing sympathy. Some approached us secretly afterwards and advised us to ask Shavei for forgiveness so that things could be patched up. But what is it we need to be forgiven for for? Feeding hungry people?"
The B’nei Menashe community of Phalbung also invited the mourning family to pray in Phalbung’s synagogue during the days of the Shiva. “It was kind of it,” says Oved. “But even though Phalbung is just four or five kilometers away, we couldn’t go there on a daily basis because of the lockdown.”
The Kipgen family rose from its Shiva at the week’s end, with Michael still recovering in the hospital. “I don’t know which hurt more,” he told us, “the behavior of the Gamgiphai community or missing my own father’s funeral. My only hope now is that I’ll be able to take my mother and the rest of my family to Israel one day. Is that too much to ask?”
If Shavei Israel has its way, it may be.
Sitting Shiva. Foreground (with glasses): Jangkholun’s wife Sarah Hatlam Kipgen. Left rear: Oved Lun Kipgen. At right (wearing turban): Oved’s wife, Jangkholun’s daughter Khanna Hoineo Kipgen.