Pardes Hannah Mayor Angered by Indian Jews' Conversion Course

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Pardes Hannah's mayor is up in arms over the arrival of some 100 Bnei Menashe, members of an Indian community that claims to have Jewish roots, at a religious seminary in his town.

According to Mayor Haim Gaash, the Bnei Menashe arrived secretly, under the auspices of a nongovernmental organization that did not coordinate with him first.

"Those who organized the arrival of the members of the tribe belong to a private organization," he said. "Private organizations are not supposed to deal with new immigrants; they deal with tourists or foreign workers."

The Bnei Menashe were brought to the Noam seminary by the Shavei Israel organization, which assists small Jewish communities. They will stay at the seminary for a few months while they undergo conversion, at which point they will be eligible for citizenship.

According to the organization's rabbi, Eliyahu Birnbaum, the Bnei Menashe are descendants of the tribe of Menashe, which was lost 2,700 years ago. For decades, he said, they have observed Jewish traditions in their homeland of northeast India, including maintaining some 40 synagogues.

He said that there was no intention of doing anything secretly and apologized to the mayor for any misunderstanding. The organization, he explained, sought a religious school with sufficient dormitory space at which the immigrants could study for conversion.

The president of the Bnei Menashe community in India, Yigal Anshin, said that he had been waiting for this moment for 15 years.

"This is a wonderful evening, and it will be even better in the future," he said. "This is a historic moment for us. We have returned to the land of our forefathers, our motherland."

Approximately 1,500 Bnei Menashe are currently in Israel, and some 5,000 remain in India.

The Interior Ministry said that members of the community are allowed into Israel on special tourist visas, and that their status will be altered immediately after their conversion is completed.