The Elijah Project
Facilitating the Return of the House of Israel


Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail of Jerusalem
 is in search of the Ten Lost Tribes

Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail of Jerusalem is in search of the Ten Lost Tribes. Astoundingly, he thinks he has found millions of people who may, indeed, be the descendants of those long-lost Jews.

Rabbi Avichail has devoted the past 18 years of his life to traveling around the world searching for people who, though not formally Jewish, observe many Jewish customs, have other tangible connections to the Jewish people, and believe in their own Jewish ancestry.

Together with supporters and members of his group, Amishav ("My People Returns"), Rabbi Avichail investigates such people to determine if adequate evidence exists to make a substantive claim to a Jewish heritage. If the rabbi finds compelling enough evidence, and the people wish to re-embrace Judaism, he brings them back to Israel, where they study, undergo conversion and settle in the land of Israel.

Rabbi Avichail's spiritual journey in search of the tribes began in 1960, when he went, out of curiosity, to hear a lecture on the Ten Lost Tribes. Of course, Rabbi Avichail already knew the historical record. He knew that Israel's 12 tribes split into two groups after King Solomon's reign (10th century BCE) with Judah and Benjamin forming Judah, the southern kingdom, and the remaining 10 tribes forming Israel, the northern kingdom. He knew that two centuries later, the Assyrians invaded Israel and exiled the tribes, a dispersion completed in 722 BCE.

As far as history was concerned, the Ten Tribes then disappeared. They evidently settled somewhere in the east, probably in the areas of Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. Presumably, they then assimilated completely...

Driven by these motivating forces, Rabbi Avichail began to study about the Ten Lost Tribes. He read the sacred literature, which he quotes extensively in his book, "The Tribes of Israel." He read about the many Jewish travelers who claimed to have come across the tribes, of the claims that the Ten Lost Tribes were, in fact, ancestors of the American Indians or the Anglo-Saxons...

He also decided to expand his search, feeling a moral obligation to the Marrano Jews, who were members not of the Lost Tribes, but of the tribe of Judah. Miraculously, despite having been converted forcibly 500 years ago [in the Spanish Inquisition], some descendants of Marranos retain some Jewish practices. Rabbi Avichail was determined to locate such Marranos and see if they wished to return to their people. Indeed, Marranos in Belmonte, a community in Portugal, were re-converted to Judaism under Rabbi Avichail's auspices.

In his quest, the rabbi has journeyed to China, Japan, Afghanistan, Tibet, Pakistan, India, Italy, Peru, Mexico, Spain, and three republics in the former Soviet Union, among other places. In many cases, he traveled in hostile Moslem lands. In Kashmir, for example, he was followed everywhere, suspected of being a spy.

Rabbi Avichail's search for verification of the claims and hopes of Jewish ancestry has been exhausting, but exhilarating... Such groups include:

The Shinlung tribe, numbering 1-2 million, live in India and Burma. Some 5,000 Shinlungs claim to be the lost Israelite tribe of Menasheh and have begun observing Jewish rituals.

The Shinlung believe that the tribe of Menasheh settled in Persia and was later driven east, eventually to China. Then, around 600 CE, they were persecuted and fled from China to Viet Nam, where they lived in caves. Indeed, the name Shinlung means "cave dwellers." Eventually they were forced from Viet Nam and wandered around Thailand and Burma until they crossed the Irrawaddy River and settled in India.

The Shinlung came into contact with Christian missionaries about 100 years ago. The missionaries, seeing that the tribe followed many Jewish customs, believed that they could be converted to Christianity. With the aid of British troops, the missionaries removed religious treasures from the Shinlung so that Jewish customs and practices could not be performed. About 90 percent of the tribal people in Mizoram, one of the Indian states where the Shinlung live, have been converted to Christianity.

At some point in the early 1950s, a Shinlung farmer named Chala awakened from a dream in which he believed he had been told that the Shinlung were the lost Israelite tribe Menasheh, and that they had to return to the land of Israel. Other members of the Shinlung had heard such stories. They knew their customs could be considered Israelite in origin. They knew then ancestor was named "Menase," which in fact sounded a lot like Menasheh. They called their Supreme Being "Y'wa." They had feast days that corresponded to various Jewish holidays, and a system of animal sacrifices similar to the ones in the Bible. They practiced burial with no cremation, sanctified a newborn boy on the eighth day of his life, and slaughtered an animal and drained its blood prior to eating it, among other customs...

There are 15 million members of the Pathan tribe in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was this tribe that fought troops from the Soviet Union in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Pathans live along the border (indeed, on both sides), with about 7 million in Afghanistan and 8 million in Pakistan.

The Moslem Pathans follow, in widely varying degrees of observance, 21 specific Jewish customs. For example, older Pathan women light candles on Friday evenings to bless the Sabbath. Also, Pathans use the Star of David and wear a four-cornered prayer garment, wear sidelocks, have circumcision on the eighth day and follow other customs. Many have Jewish-sounding names. The Pathan subtribal names even have the ring of the Ten Tribes. Examples of such names include Rabani (like Reuven), Shinwari (Shimon), Daftani (Naftali), Ashuri (Asher), and Yusef-sai (sons of Joseph). Some of the Pathans call themselves B'nei Israel, the Children of Israel...

Many African tribes believe they have an Israelite origin. For example, the Lemba tribe, numbering 100,000 and located in southern Africa, practice circumcision and don't eat certain foods they consider impure, such as pigs and animals without split hooves. Some Lemba members believe they are the descendants of the Israelites.

Throughout western Africa, in such places as Senegal, Dahomey, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, there are several million people who practice some mix of a Christian and Biblical Jewish religion.

In Halapa, Mexico, there is a group of 200-300 people who want to live Jewish lives. They are made up of descendants of the Marranos and others who practice Jewish customs somehow passed down by their families. Another group of people in Mexico live in the town of Vienta-Prietta. This group has a synagogue, a cemetery, a community center and a mikveh. While considered gentiles, this group also wishes to convert according to Jewish law.

The "Bnei Moshe" of Peru live in Cajamarca, Trujillo and Lima. The group started about 50 years ago. Their leader, Segundo Villanueva, was, at age 15, given a Bible by his father. Villanueva and his brother began to follow a Jewish way of life. In 1971, males in the group were circumcised. In 1987, an Israeli engineer who had spent time in the area contacted Amishav about them. After undergoing formal conversion, the group arrived in Israel in 1990.

Rabbi Avichail is very careful about claims that such people are actually descendants of the Lost Tribes. For example, the rabbi asserts that they can return to the Jewish people, but only after a proper conversion. The reason for this is that however much proof there is of a connection to the Lost Tribes, and while, as he says, "a Jewish soul is always a Jewish soul," significant questions still remain.

Therefore, the conversions take place in order to remove any lingering doubts. However, Rabbi Avichail distinguishes between the conversions that occur for these presumed members of the Lost Tribes, and the conversions of gentiles. Normally, potential converts are turned away and told to return after a period of time so that the prospective Jew can offer convincing evidence of sincerity. For Marranos and remnants of the Lost Tribes, who presumably have remnants of a Jewish soul, however, Rabbi Avichail believes no such discouragement is called for. In fact, for the rabbi, the formal act of conversion is simply "to bring back people with a Jewish past," and is not a typical conversion.

Rabbi Avichail's efforts have not been without controversy. There is, of course, the normal skepticism that might be expected to accompany any claims to have located descendants of the Lost Tribes. There is, in addition, an emerging political controversy...

[Yet] anyone who speaks with Rabbi Avichail can hear the kindness and the passion in his voice. He serenely senses that he is part of a great moment in Jewish history. It is this sense of history, and the mission he has chosen to accept, that combine to fuel his spiritual passions.



The Elijah Project