Yehoshua Yacobi – a Bnei Ephraim finds his way to Israel
The Bnei Ephraim is a small community in rural India that claims to be the descendants of the biblical tribe of Ephraim, exiled from the land of Israel nearly 3,000 years ago. While their history is far from clear-cut, at least one member of this group has found his way to Israel, where he has lived for the last 17 years.
39-year-old Yehoshua Yacobi was in his mid-20s when he began to practice Jewish tradition in the remote Andhra Pradesh state of southeastern India. His father, Shmuel, is considered the “founder” of the Bnei Ephraim community. A former Christian preacher, Shmuel visited Israel in the early 1980s and became convinced that his – and his people’s – past was Jewish, not Christian.
The Bnei Ephraim, Shmuel asserted, migrated from northern India, or perhaps via Afghanistan or the Mizoram and Manipur regions (where the Bnei Menashe settled after their own wanderings), settling ultimately in an area called Nandial.
Upon his return from Israel to India, Shmuel was joined in his journey to Judaism by his siblings and their children – some 30 families in total (today there are 120 families in the community). Shmuel’s brothers Tzadok and Aaron became community leaders in their home village of Kottareddipalem and established several synagogues. Shmuel’s son Yehoshua took his dreams and fulfilled them by immigrating to Israel in 1993.
While the community’s formal connections with Judaism are relatively recent, there are many folk stories which members of the Bnei Ephraim believe suggest a Jewish background. These include burial, marriage and family purity (niddah) traditions similar to those in contemporary Jewish practice; a new year starting in the Jewish month of Nissan (when Passover occurs); names ending with “yah” (symbolic for the name of G-d); and a tradition that the Bnei Ephraim will join with its two “sister tribes – Yehuda and Binyamin – to bring world peace,” according to Shmuel.
Shmuel has compiled these stories into a 400-page book, currently available only in the Bnei Ephraim language of Telugu. He hopes to someday translate the book into Hebrew and English.
More recently, the Bnei Ephraim in India began following the Jewish dietary laws and keeping the Sabbath and major Jewish holidays. This was not always easy, Yehoshua explained. “Employers insisted we work on Saturday. In India, Sunday is the day off. If someone asked for permission to take Shabbat off, they didn’t receive it.”
Yehoshua insisted that Indian bosses weren’t acting out of anti-Semitism. “They didn’t know anything about the Jews,” he said. “Even if we would tell them, they wouldn’t understand.”
When Yehoshua immigrated to Israel, Shavei Israel had not yet been established. In the last year, however, Yehoshua met Shavei founder and chairman Michael Freund who suggested that he begin translating Hebrew books and other religious materials into Telugu to enable the community to learn more about Jewish belief and practice.
Yehoshua lived for his first 15 years in the country in Jerusalem, learning part time at a number of yeshivas, serving in the Israel Defense Forces and, most recently, working in the library at Hebrew University where he met his wife – also an immigrant, albeit from Ukraine.
Yehoshua moved to Ramat Gan two years ago to be closer to his wife’s family. While he has degrees in biology and chemistry, today he works as a salesperson at a local Gali shoe store. He continues to study and said he misses Jerusalem.
In November of last year, Yehoshua was joined briefly by his uncle, Tzadok, whom Shavei Israel brought to Israel to study Hebrew, Torah and Mishna. He also learned privately with Rabbis Yehuda Gin and Gurion Sela from the Bnei Menashe community.
About his trip, Tzadok wrote in a moving letter home, “May Hashem bless Shavei forever and also may Hashem bring his people- Bnei Ephraim – soon to the Holy Land.” In December, Tzadok returned to India to teach what he had learned.
Yehoshua’s father, Shmuel, meanwhile continues to teach in India. He stays up to date on the news from Israel by reading the weekly international edition of the Jerusalem Post and hopes to publish a CD with Bnei Ephraim songs sung in Hebrew and set to traditional Telugu folk melodies.
The Bnei Ephraim have had a remarkable if brief history and demonstrate a true passion for Judaism. While their roots remain unclear, Shavei Israel is assisting the community with fulfilling its heartfelt desire to deepen their knowledge of Jewish belief and practice. . With G-d’s help, more Bnei Ephraim – like Yehoshua Yacobi – will perhaps one day become part of the Jewish people in Israel.