It is the belief of the Bnei Menashe of Northeastern India that their legendary forefather Manmasi,* was actually Menashe the son of Joseph and that their communities are the remnants of the Tribe of Menashe. The oral history of the Bnei Menashe tracks a path of escape from Assyrian slavery westward to Afghanistan, moving eventually into Tibet and then China, where the people dwelled in caves until they were expelled and scattered across Southeast Asia.
In the 1890s, as Christian missionaries made their way to the remote northern corner of India, the Bnei Menashe recognized the Old Testament narratives of the missionaries, and many of them converted to Christianity. In 1951, however, a tribal leader named Challianthanga shared a dream he had that instructed the people to return to their origins – to Judaism and the Land of Israel.
According to traditional Jewish law, one is Jewish because one’s mother is Jewish or because one converts. As hundreds of Bnei Menashe began studying Judaism and adopting Jewish traditions, a decision had to be made regarding the tribes’ Jewish authenticity. While the Bnei Menashe did have some customs that might be associated with Jewish tradition, none were sufficiently definitive.
Eventually, the question was brought to Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel at the time. In 2005, Rabbi Amar ruled that while an ancient connection could be accepted, the Bnei Menashe who wished to live as Jews and who wished to make aliyah (move to Israel) required a formal conversion because of the extent and duration of their separation both in time and in customs from mainstream Jewish life. In the last several years, hundreds of Bnei Menashe have completed their conversions and moved to Israel.
*The Bnei Menashe are all technically members of the Mizo, Kuki and Chin tribes of the area.
The Cochin Jews of India