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The Optimistic Pessimists of Phalbung

(December 16) What is optimism? It is when seven families in a small village in a remote region of the world build a handsome synagogue because they believe in their Jewish future.

What is pessimism? It is when seven families in a small village in a remote part of the world build a handsome synagogue because they do not believe that their dream of this future being in Israel is coming any closer to fulfillment.

When our Newsletter first visited Phalbung in the summer of 2020, during the first round of Degel Menashe’s Covid-19 emergency food distribution campaign to the B’nei Menashe of Mizoram and Manipur, the synagogue was already under construction. Today, a year-and-a-half later, it is nearing completion, with only the interior finishing, electrical wiring, and furnishings still to be installed.

There are about 23 families living in Phalbung, a hamlet located in a hilly countryside off the road leading from Imphal, the capital of Manipur, to Kangpokpi, the main city in the state’s north. “We’re all related and belong to the Lunkhel clan of the Haokip tribe,” we were told by Yaacov Haokip, the head of the local Jewish community, whose relative Yechiel Haokip, serves as Phalbung’s recognized chief.

Yaacov Haokip.

“Seven families practice Judaism, five are Messianics [Christians who emphasize Christianity’s Jewish roots], and the rest belong to the Kuki Baptist Church [Manipur’s main Protestant denomination]. We get along well and don’t try to proselytize or convert one another, though the Messianics have shown an interest in Judaism. They don’t have a place of their own to worship in, and now that we will, who knows? Perhaps they’ll take the next step and join us. They’re halfway there already.”

Phalbung’s B’nei Menashe community itself grew out of Messianic Christianity, which it renounced for strict Jewish observance in the 1990s under the guidance of Eliyahu Avichail, the Israeli rabbi who brought Orthodox Judaism to northeast India. Back then, Haokip says, the B’nei Menashe of Phalbung formed a single congregation with the B’nei Menashe of the nearby town of Motbung, five kilometers away, with whom they prayed and celebrated Sabbaths and Jewish festivals.

“Morale in those days was very high,” Haokip recalls. “The first groups of B”nei Menashe had already left for Israel with Rabbi Avichail’s support and we were sure we would all follow soon.” These hopes, he went on, were dashed when the Jerusalem-based organization Shavei Israel came along in 2004, pushed Avichail aside, took over administration of the Aliyah process with the consent of the Israeli government, and demanded that the B’nei Menashe switch from the Ashkenazi liturgy that Avichail had taught them to the Sephardic one.

Rabbi ELiyahu Avichail.

“It was an ultimatum,” says Haokip.” There was no discussion, no attempt to explain or reason with us, nothing.”

The Motbung community gave in to Shavei Israel’s demand and adopted the Sephardic prayer book, and when the B’nei Menashe of Phalbung refused to do the same, they were expelled from the Motbung congregation “Suddenly, we were homeless", Haokip relates. “There was a single B’nei Menashe woman in Motbung, a widow with two small children, who sided with us and offered us her home to pray in. Since it was easier for us to trek the five kilometers to Motbung on Sabbaths and holidays than for her to walk with her children to Phalbung, we accepted her offer and made her home our place of worship.”

This makeshift arrangement continued, Haokip says, until 2019. By then, told point-blank by Shavei Israel officials that that they had no chance of ever making Aliyah as long as they adhered to the Ashkenazi liturgy, the Phalbung community had decided to build its own synagogue.

Yaacov and Yechiel Haokip at synagogue’s side.

Yaacov’s fellow villager, Yechiel donated the land, timber, and bamboo for construction and most of the money needed to pay the masons and other skilled workers, and the members of the community contributed the rest of the labor in what spare time they could find.

Since there was not much of that, construction proceeded slowly. Phalbung’s B’nei Menashe are a busy group. For inhabitants of a small agricultural village in Manipur, the level of schooling among them is surprisingly high. Besides tending the rice fields, vegetable gardens, and domestic animals they all have, their seven families number several college graduates, two M.A. students, and three elementary school teachers. Yaacov Haokip himself has a degree in political science from the University of Manipur and Yechiel has one in English. And yet, says Yaacov, despite possessing the education that would enable most of them to succeed in the outside world, the children and grandchildren of the original founders of Judaism in Phalbung all still live in the village. “We’re a tight-knit community,” Haokip says. “We’ve been together for the last thirty years and no one has left us except for brief periods to pursue their studies. They’ve always come back in the end.”

A tight-knit community.

Do Phalbung’s B’nei Menashe have regrets about not having acceded to Shavei’s demands so that they might be living Israel today, as do most of the former congregants of Motbung, whose Jewish community no longer exists? After all, the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayer are not that great. Shavei Israel’s insistence on the latter had nothing to do with religious belief and was solely a matter of asserting the organization’s power over Manipur and Mizoram’s B’nei Menashe. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to let Shavei have it way?

“But it was a matter of religious faith!” answers Yaacov Haokip. “Not which liturgy to pray in: I agree, that doesn’t matter. But the real choice wasn’t between Ashkenazi or Sephardi prayer, it was between worshiping the one true God or worshiping Shavei Israel. We were not going to practice Judaism by bowing down to Shavei. God sees everything, and justice and righteousness will prevail in the end. If we had to decide all over again, we would make the same choice.”

Meanwhile, though they have not relinquished their dream of living in Israel, the B’nei Menashe of Phalbung are not counting on being allowed to settle there any time soon. Their immediate future, lies in Phalbung – and with a real synagogue that they soon will be able to pray in. “At the moment, we’re short of funds to finish it,” Haokip says. “Any help would be appreciated.” Donations can be made via Degel Menashe.

Still to be finished: the synagogue’s interior, bima, and aron kodesh.


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