For centuries, world travelers dreamed of finding distant Jewish tribes in the faraway corners of their known world — over the mountains, in remote villages, practicing customs preserved in isolation.
Today, a quick Google search will do.
In Facebook groups and on Skype, on Whatsapp and Instagram, communities from Africa, Asia and the Americas gather to explore Judaism — and, as many see it, to rekindle ancestral connections to their ancient faith.
Individuals and communities have emerged in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, China, India, Spain, Peru, Portugal and elsewhere. Estimates vary about the numbers of broadly defined “emerging” communities — and range at the upper end in the millions.
Is this the Jewish Diaspora of the 21st century?
That’s the question that Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is now considering. The State of Israel, for the most part, has kept many of these groups at a distance, wary of making blanket decisions and of parsing out each community’s complicated ancestral claims or individual religious practice.
But a new initiative from the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs signals a change, or at least recognition of immensity of this global trend. A five-person advisory committee commissioned by the ministry last summer has been meeting regularly over the past 10 months with rabbis, researchers and activists, as well as interviewing would-be Israelites and Jews from all over the world. The committee has promised to release its recommendations in May.
The group has made it their mission to map out “the various communities and their ties to the Jewish Nation and Israel,” a memo from the committee read.
But where to begin? There are dozens of emerging communities.
Some of these groups proclaim ancient ties to the Lost Tribes of Israel; others are categorized by the committee as Bnei Anousim, or “children of the coerced,” those with familial links to Jews who were forced leave their faith, in Spain or Communist countries, for example. Others still make no historical claims but have begun practicing forms of Judaism on their own initiative. The committee’s goal was not to make a ruling on any person or community’s claims — nor to open up the fraught topic of immigration, a committee representative said.
“We’re looking for a third path, not conversion and not immigration. A new way for them to be part of the Jewish people,” said Hagay Elizur, head of the Diaspora Department in the ministry, “and connect to Israel.”
The Israeli government is late to the scene. For decades, private individuals and groups have been seeking out these dispersed and aspiring Jewish groups and ushering them along in their search for Jewish identity.
One Israeli-American in particular, a peripatetic activist for the “lost and dispersed Jews,” is Michael Freund.
Freund said he has been waiting for this moment for years. He called the committee “historic” and was among the first people to meet with the group, arriving in person with a 200-page report that essentially detailed his life’s work.
“We are on the verge of a tidal wave of return,” Freund recalled telling the committee. Freund, who has also expressed his views of Israeli Arabs as part of a great demographic threat, added: “We can strengthen Israel spiritually and demographically.”
Legends of Lost Tribes, and forgotten Jews living in distant exile, have fascinated the Jewish world — and world travelers — for centuries. Many of these tales stem from the forcible scattering of the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel around 720 BCE by Assyrian conquerors, as recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
“Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away,” the Bible reads. But many scholars now believe that not all Israelites were expelled; and there was likely much mixing between Israelite remnants and the alien population that came to settle in the Northern Kingdom.
The members of the Southern Kingdom, known as Judea, carried on the lineage of the Israelites. That kingdom’s descendants, from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, survived in one form or another, to disperse over time and, along with numerous converts to Judaism, become the people and faith community recognized in later history as the Jews. But the surviving Jews’ concern about what became of their vanished brethren never vanished entirely.
For the often beleaguered Jews of Medieval Europe, stories about Israel’s Lost Tribes were empowering. Somewhere out there, they could imagine powerful Jews: Hebrew-speaking kings who wielded swords and ruled with Torah. Such visions let Europe’s persecuted Jews feel they were not alone. Their return even became associated in some circles with the promised coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the Jewish people.
Stories of Lost Tribes also followed the colonial frontier as Christian explorers from the West, bibles in hand, sought to both understand and subjugate the peoples they encountered. Writers, ethnographers and historians seriously considered the possibility that a wide range of the peoples they encountered — from Native Americans to African groups to the Japanese — had Jewish or Israelite roots.
These Lost Tribes tales took root all over the world and in some places resurfaced in the form of anti-colonial narratives among colonized groups who heard echoes of their own past in biblical tales. In parts of Africa, for example, some communities have shrugged off the Christianity of colonial missionaries — turning instead to Judaism, which they see as a pre-colonial faith.
In the modern Zionist project, the story has taken on other dimensions, dating all the way back to the 1940s. Take, for example, the Organization for the Lost Tribes of Israel — a group of influential Jews living in British Mandate Palestine who sought to find lost tribes in 1946. Jacques Faitlovitch, who helped to publicize the existence of Ethiopia’s Beta Israel, was involved. Yizhak Ben Zvi, who would go on to become the second president of Israel, was also a member.
They were still learning the full horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, and faced a demographic concern: With Europe Jewry decimated, how could they build their dreamed-of Jewish state?
“In Africa,” one member of the 1946 organization wrote, “we shall find the good and faithful tribes who will take the place of the lost of the Shoah. Should we turn them away?”
This mantle of Lost Tribes outreach was picked up by an Israeli named Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail, a few decades later — and at another crucial crossroads in Israel’s history. Avichail was moved not by political concerns, though. His was seemingly by a deep spiritual call.
As a young man Avichail fought in the First Arab-Israeli War, in 1948, and studied with Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, a visionary rabbi who headed the storied Mercaz HaRav yeshiva.
It was students of Kook who, imbued with his mystical ideology, leaped to settle the West Bank after Israel won control of the territory in the 1967 Six Day War. They were moved by Kook’s vision of the Jewish people’s religious mandate to establish sovereignty over all of the biblical land of Israel to bring on divine redemption. But Avichail took a slightly different path that reflected another thread of Kook’s mystical vision: He set out to gather in “the lost ones in Israel.”
Avichail founded Amishav (“My people return”) in 1975. It was a small group based out of his house, consisting of Avichail and his wife and one volunteer. In pursuit of his chosen mission, Avichail made his way to India, Burma, China, Thailand, Japan, Peru and elsewhere.
On his adventures, Avichail drew from older colonial writing and religious texts. He eagerly pressed Indian, Afghan and Japanese locals; he wanted to hear their oral histories and customs. Did they practice circumcision? Could he meet their eldest priests? Did they worship one God? What did they call Him?
Though searching for the Lost Tribes of Israel, he eventually expanded his quest to dispersed groups who made no such claims of ancient descent. He combed the Iberian Peninsula, among other places, looking for traces of the Marranos who took their Judaism underground in 15th century Spain, where it had flourished for centuries, until the advent of the Inquisition.
Amishav’s goals included the “scientific research of the Lost Tribes of Israel and the actual ingathering of these lost people, first back to Judaism and then to the Jewish People, and to the Land of Israel,” he wrote.
But official bodies like the Jewish Agency looked askance at Avichail’s work. He was seen as an eccentric. Avichail spent his life ingathering “lost people,” but the writer Hillel Halkin — who traveled with Avichail on one of his sojourns to India — wrote, somewhat disparagingly, “Maybe he himself was lost.”
Still, Avichail influenced another generation of seekers that would make inroads into the mainstream. A U.S. branch of Amishav was formed in the ’90s that would later turn into Kulanu, another influential group providing assistance to isolated Judaizing groups. (Kulanu today assists in Jewish conversions at times, but has adopted a more liberal and nondenominational American approach.)
And Avichail’s star disciple was Freund, who would ultimately eclipse his mentor as Israel’s chief Lost Tribes advocate. The student branched off from his mentor eventually, to form his own group, Shavei Israel. Freund’s new name for his group introduced a slight but important nuance: While Amishav means “My people return,” Shavei Israel is perhaps more explicit — “Returners of Israel.”
In 1995, the year that the Oslo II peace agreement was signed, Freund immigrated to Israel with his family. He had no interest in lost or submerged Jewish groups then, but was an observant, Orthodox Jew and a proud Zionist. In 1996 he took a job at the communications bureau of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who would later lose and then regain the office, which he holds today).
In the spring of 1997, a small crumpled piece of mail, postmarked Manipur, India, caught Freund’s eye.
“An orange envelope arrived from this community in India,” Freund said in a recent interview. “It was an emotional appeal to the prime minister for them to come back to Israel.”
The letter came from northeastern India, on the border of Burma and Bangladesh, from a group called the Bnei Menashe. Members numbered in the thousands; it was an ethnic minority that claimed an oral history of Israelite origin. “I thought it was nuts,” he said — but he was also curious, and wrote back.
This exchange eventually led Freund to Avichail, who, it turned out, had been working with the Bnei Menashe for years, instructing them in rabbinical Judaism and helping a handful to immigrate.
Freund was taken with their story — and with Avichail — and wanted to help. With his background in business, politics and, briefly, public relations, Freund brought a shrewd political strategy to the work.
In 2002, Freund founded Shavei Israel. Today he employs a dozen people with “emissaries” in India, China, Russia, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Colombia, El Salvador and Chile. Last year they sent their first-ever delegate to Nigeria.
Announcements from Shavei Israel blast out with a certain triumphant regularity: “Shavei Israel held a summer seminar for Hidden Jews of Poland”; “Shavei Israel emissary Gadi Bentali teaches Hebrew to lost Jews in Enugu, Nigeria”; “Shavei Israel presents the first-ever Bnei Menashe soccer tournament in Tiberias, Israel!”
But — maybe even because of the group’s success — many have reservations about Freund’s work and his Zionist approach. While Avichail was uncomfortable with taking money from Christian Zionist groups, Freund has no such qualms. He has worked with the evangelical International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and with other Christian organizations.
Freund is also not opposed to settling the would-be immigrants in the occupied West Bank, which he refers to as Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the Palestinian territories (used especially by Jews who claim them as Israel’s rightful patrimony). Some of the Bnei Menashe originally moved to places like Kiryat Arba in the West Bank. That has not been the case with more recent immigrants, but some on the Israeli left remain suspicious.
“How is it possible that hundreds of people are being brought from India to go to settlements?” one Knesset member protested at a 2003 hearing. “It must stop immediately.”
Freund responded that the Bnei Menashe would have lived anywhere, but housing in the West Bank was less expensive. “Look,” he said, “we’d be more than happy to settle Bnei Menashe in Tel Aviv.”
Those who have reservations about Freund also worry that the new committee established by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is simply an extension of his vision of an unprecedented Jewish ingathering. Some worry further that it may also reflect the priorities of the ministry’s chief, Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Bennett’s ministry, which was established only last year, has already butted heads with the Jewish Agency as both groups seek to assert their roles as bridges between Israel and world Jewry.
The Jewish Agency, which has typically handled group immigration to Israel, is not represented on the Diaspora Ministry’s new committee. “The idea here is to reach out to non-Jewish communities,” the Jewish Agency wrote in an email, which is “beyond the scope of the Jewish Agency mission.”
Last summer the Israeli news outlet Haaretz speculated about the political intentions of the new group, highlighting both Freund’s leading role and the right-wing background of some the committee’s members.
The committee was set up by Dvir Kahana, who was previously a senior member of Elad, a controversial organization that acquires Arab properties in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, evicts or buys out the residents and settles Israeli Jews in their midst. Though Israel annexed that section of the city shortly after the Six Day War, no country recognizes it as part of Israel, and Jewish settlement in that sector is viewed widely as a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Another committee member is Zvi Hauser, a former Cabinet secretary to Netanyahu who has called the West Bank the “formative territory of the Jewish people and of Jewish civilization, from which the State of Israel arose.”
Daniel Lis, a Swiss-Israeli academic who has worked with the Igbo, said he was initially suspicious of the committee’s intentions. But he looked at the makeup of the group, read a bit about its mission and was satisfied. He decided to present his recommendations.
“The Israeli left is critical of these Lost Tribes groups, thinking they are being used simply for settlements, as if that is the only motivation,” said Lis. “To close out those groups because they might be used in Israeli settlements would be a mistake. They are not somehow automatically on the right. To reduce it to a right-left issue—it’s more complex than that.”
What did the Diaspora Affairs committee find when it waded into this complex world? The committee gathered together for a dozen major meetings, collecting testimonies and reports from academics, religious authorities and community members.
A committee member and members of the ministry declined to provide specifics about their findings, but spoke in general terms about the committee’s interest in defining the concentric “circles of Jewish community,” emanating from a “core Jewish community.”
Freund was the first person to speak with the group. He knew some of the committee members from his time working in Netanyahu’s Cabinet. But many others were consulted, too. Another presenter was Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University demographer whose areas of expertise include tracing descendants of Iberian Jews who live today in Spain, Portugal and the Americas. Lis gave his own recommendations. Tudor Parfitt, an Indiana Jones-style scholar and Lost Tribes expert well known for his work with the Lemba tribe in southern Africa, also spoke.
A range of rabbinical voices weighed in, including Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, who works for Shavei Israel; Rabbi Andrew Sacks, of Israel’s Masorti Movement (a counterpart to Conservative Judaism in the United States), and Rabbi Haim Amsalem, of Israel’s Am Shalem party, a Knesset faction that seeks to bring Orthodox and secular Israelis together.
Members of emerging, would-be Diaspora communities gave their own accounts. A Kaifeng Jew, Moshe Li, who had immigrated and was serving in the Israel Defense Forces came to speak. An Igbo called in on Skype, and a Lemba, too.
A Bnei Menashe who had lived in the settlement of Kiryat Arba as a young girl described the difficulties of her immigration. “While still living in India we wanted badly to return to Israel,” said Esther Colney, who came to Israel in 1999 with Avichail’s help. “As far as we were concerned, we considered ourselves Jews from all aspects,” she wrote in Hebrew, in response to emailed questions from the Forward.
“But when we arrived in Israel things were different. We were considered Indian, which is funny because I never saw myself as Indian in India,” she continued, “I saw myself as the daughter of Menashe, as a Jew… People mistook us for Filipinos, for Thais or for Chinese workers. I felt that no one considered me as Jewish in Israel.”
Giovanni Melchionda, an Italian who said he recently discovered his Jewish identity, offered his story. “I first became aware of my Jewish origin when a friend who was an expert on the Hebrew language told me that my surname derived from the Hebrew word melech,” he wrote in a letter to the committee, shared with the Forward. “Testimonies of Erev Shabbat, of candles, of Kiddush and Hamotzi were kept right up until the generation of my grandfather Giovanni.”
Melchionda said that he already feels very connected with the State of Israel.
“We have undertaken more than 20 trips to Israel, twice a year, and some with groups of visitors,” Melchionda wrote. “Our daughter [studied] Hebrew at the University of Venice and is currently living in Jerusalem.”
When Parfitt presented, the full scope of the emerging communities came out — from so-called Lost Tribes to Marranos, to groups that have simply taken on aspects of Judaism on their own initiative. Some have converted through groups like Kulanu and Shavei Israel; others have not.
The list began: the Bnei Menashe; the Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh, in central India; the House of Israel of Ghana; the Malagasy Jewish Diaspora of Madagascar; the House of the Righteous of Cameroon; the Gogodala of Papua New Guinea; the Lemba; the Igbo; the Abayudaya of Uganda.
Smaller communities came from within ethnic groups such as the Berber, Baluba, Bassa, Fulani, Hottentot, Masai, Meru, Nga, Shona, Soninke, Tiv, Tutsi, Xhosa, Yibir, Yoruba and Zulu. Parfitt also listed the Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Maori of New Zealand, and communities the Solomon Islands.
“Millions of people are stepping forward not volunteering to be Jews, but declaring that they are Jews,” Parfitt said to the committee. “The challenge for Israel and for the Jewish people and specifically for the new committee set up by the Ministry of the Diaspora is to decide what to do about it.”
A 1991 Wall Street Journal headline about Avichail’s outreach read: “A Rabbi Searches for the Lost Tribes of Ancient Israel — but Some Who Are Found Are Either Not Welcome or Not Eager To Return.”
Little has changed. The myriad Judaizing groups face both challenges to joining “mainstream Jewry” — and not all of them even wish to join.
“Not all of these groups are Zionist, or are in favor of contact with the outside world,” said Nathan P. Devir, a professor of Jewish history at the University of Utah who has traveled widely among Judaizing communities in Africa. “Some are. But not all of them are interested in conversion or immigration.”
Communities have been divided on this issue.
Remy Ilona is an Igbo writer from Nigeria, where he estimates 4,000 of his people practice rabbinical Judaism today (many more practice forms of Messianic Judaism). “The land of Israel is part of my heritage,” Ilona said in a recent interview, “but we have a portion of this land here in Nigeria.” He said he wanted his community’s land in Nigeria “to be ruled by Torah again.”
Ilona has also said that conversion would be an insult to his ancestral claims.
With this in mind, Kulanu, the other group that grew out of Avichail’s work, offers a slightly different approach to emerging Jews. The group is less focused on Israel — and its religious orientation is officially nondenominational. Unlike their predecessor Avichail, they are not interested in parsing out historical claims. But similarly, one Kulanu member explained, they hope to “establish a new Jewish Diaspora.”
“Most of the communities I deal with love their homeland, they’re not interested in moving to Israel,” said Bonita Nathan Sussman, vice president of Kulanu. “When communities ask me what’s the right way to be Jewish, I say there are many right ways here, you need to do that adjustment yourselves. We’re not here to make you into anything.”
The fact that Israel is now reaching out to previously marginalized groups is significant, said Marla Brettschneider, a professor of political philosophy who has traveled with Kulanu. And so, she added, is the timing.
“This is a political moment when Israel is being criticized abroad, with the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” Brettschneider said. “With this committee, Israel gets to constitute new Jewish communities in the Diaspora.”
In doing, the State of Israel — as opposed to another body — becomes the central authority recognizing Judaizing groups.
Earlier, the committee floated briefly the idea of going on a series of trips into the field (Freund would have been acting as a guide), but the plan never materialized. Groups like Kulanu and Shavei Israel, however, continue their work while the committee deliberates.
Kulanu is leading a delegation to Madagascar in May. And Shavei Israel recently welcomed a group of women from Kaifeng in Tel Aviv. Freund met the new immigrants at the airport, posing for photos with them before ferrying them to Jerusalem’s Western Wall to pray. “You are performing the mitzvah of settling the Land of Israel,” he said.
TV cameras and reporters huddled around the women, who answered questions in English, holding a banner emblazoned with Hebrew, Chinese and the Israeli flag.
“Welcome home,” a reporter called out. The scene was somewhere between a press conference and a religious ceremony. “Look at the power of Jewish memory,” Freund said. “Look at the power of Jewish destiny.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.