03 Jan Bnei Menashe profile: Avital Hnamte – faith triumphs discrimination through aliyah
When Avital Hnamte began to publicly identify as a Jew in India some twenty years ago, the teenage Bnei Menashe woman encountered a hostile environment.
“The kids in my school didn’t hide their hate,” Avital recalls. “They called me names like ‘the outsider,’ ‘the non-Christian,’ ‘the different one,’ even though we are of the same color and the school where we studied together was not a religious school. It really hurt. Many of my school friends who are not part of the Jewish community are distant from me to this day.”
But Avital had her family to help her “stay strong,” she says. “It was harsh, but as time passes, I grew up well. My family helped us heal each other.”
Today Avital is 32-years-old and the mother of two sons. She lives in Aizawl, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram.
But not for much longer.
In just a few weeks, Avital and her family will be on a plane to Israel, as part of the latest group of close to 100 Bnei Menashe to make aliyah with the help of Shavei Israel.
When Avital and her family – her parents and two younger brothers – returned to their Jewish roots, they took on a set of customs that put them at odds with the world around them.
“In India, keeping kosher, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays is super difficult,” Avital admits. The nearest synagogue in Aizawl is too far for the family to walk. “But despite the many hardships we faced, we all have faith in our Almighty G-d of Abraham. That faith has helped us endure our sufferings. My motto is to always trust in Hashem.”
Shavei Israel played a big role in sustaining Avital and her family’s faith.
“Shavei Israel has supported us financially, emotionally and spiritually over the years,” she says. “They have provided our whole community the much needed funds so that we all have a place where to gather and learn more about Jewish customs and practices.”
For example, every year Avital would participate in the community’s annual Purim play, which was made possible with Shavei Israel’s support.
“My brothers, cousins and friends would all take part,” she adds. “It was the most memorable Jewish experience I had growing up.”
Avital dreamed for many years of making aliyah, “to live my life in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] with a healthy mind, body and soul,” she says. “I am sure that aliyah will elevate my spiritual beliefs and change me for the better. Our being chosen for aliyah is truly an act from up above – made possible through the good heart of Shavei Israel.”
Still, it won’t be easy to say goodbye.
“We will be leaving behind my parents, my brothers and their families, my uncle and his family, all the ones I loved and cared for,” she says. “And I will miss the ever green luscious mountains of India.”
Avital has already worked in a number of professions. She has been a school teacher, a hair dresser and a waiter/chef. She hopes to find similar work in Israel, although she is open to trying “every possible type of job” after she masters the Hebrew language in ulpan.
Current events have been on Avital’s mind and she knows that Israel has seen its share of conflict and strife.
“It makes me a little afraid, yes, because I have lived all my life in India, so I don’t know exactly what to expect,” she says. “But it doesn’t make me not want to come to Eretz Israel. I know that peace is there.”
Most of all, Avital knows she will be able to live the full Jewish life she has dreamed about, and that fills her with hope and pride.
“I have tried as best I could to observe Jewish Law in India,” she says. “I have pushed myself over the years to practice and to make it happen.”
Now it is happening and Avital couldn’t be more excited – especially about “seeing the Western Wall,” she says.
“And the sea!”
Let’s give a big Shavei Israel welcome to Avital and her family. And may her boys never have to face the kind of discrimination Avital did growing up. There can be no sweeter reward for Avital’s steadfast adherence over the years to the eternal traditions of her people.