a line of people in front of a shabby a white building with a green sign that says "Beit Shalom synagogue"
A food line at a Bnei Menashe synagogue in India. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)

Oakland man raising funds to feed impoverished Jews in India

Two decades ago, Bryan Schwartz of Oakland was traveling around India, taking pictures and collecting stories for a book about isolated Jewish communities around the world.

Isaac Thangjom, a member of the Bnei Menashe, India’s small Jewish community, hosted Schwartz in his home and served as his guide for the two weeks he spent in the northeastern state of Manipur.

headshot of Bryan Schwartz
Bryan Schwartz

That brief encounter would blossom into a long and productive friendship. Over the years, the two men have collaborated on several projects to raise awareness about the Bnei Menashe and preserve their history and culture, including an ongoing oral history project.

At the moment, however, they are focused on a more urgent task: trying to prevent thousands of community members from starving as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and India’s debilitating lockdown, which was eased at the end of May despite rising infection rates.

The Bnei Menashe identify as descendants of one of the 10 so-called “Lost Tribes” that were dispersed when the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 772 BCE.

Community leaders estimate that 4,000 Bnei Menashe live in India and, according to the Jerusalem Post, an additional 3,000-plus have immigrated to Israel since the late 1990s.

Schwartz, 47, an attorney and a former president of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, has raised about $30,000 from family and friends through his nonprofit, Scattered Among the Nations, for Bnei Menashe still living in India. Jewish Federations that serve the Long Beach area and New Mexico are also raising funds for the community, which is being supported through Thangjom’s nonprofit, Degel Menashe.

It is staggering how a relatively small amount of money can help a very large number of people in these places.

Thangjom, who now lives in Israel but still has relatives in Manipur, has been coordinating the purchase and distribution of food with people on the ground in India. As of the end of June, more than 30 tons of rice, potatoes, sugar and cooking oil have been distributed to about 620 Bnei Menashe families in the states of Manipur and Mizoram.

“If it wasn’t for Bryan, we couldn’t have come this far,” Thangjom, 51, said by phone from Ramla in central Israel. “He’s been a friend for over 20 years, and it would be something of an understatement to call him a mensch.”

Schwartz said he decided to organize this fundraiser both because of his personal connection to Thangjom and the Bnei Menashe, and because donations that address food insecurity can have a larger impact outside of the United States.

“It is staggering how a relatively small amount of money can help a very large number of people in these places,” he said. “If you gave $100 to a food bank here, it’s a lovely gift, but I don’t think you could say that it’s saving hundreds of people’s lives. That’s literally happening over there. The dollar goes a lot further.”

Lalam Hangshing, a retired Indian tax official and active member of the Bnei Menashe community, has been overseeing the food distribution.

He told J. that there are two classes of Bnei Menashe in India: those who work for the government and receive salaries “rain, hail or storm — they have no problem,” and the “daily earners” who were hit hardest by the coronavirus lockdown, as India’s was one of the strictest in the world.

“There are people tucked away in the hills who don’t have any resources to even get the staple foods,” he said. “Secondly, things are twice as expensive as before, so they are in dire straits.”

To his surprise, after the first distribution of supplies, Hangshing said he learned of three villages of Bnei Menashe that were previously unknown to the larger community. “We received a message: ‘Why have you left us out?’” he recalled. “We have pictures of one community of only six houses, about 30 people, with a kind of makeshift synagogue and even a Torah. What we wondered was why they had been forgotten for almost 20 years.”

a woman on the porch of the Bnei Menashe synagogue scoops rice from a large pile of rice into a bag held by a seated man
Members of the Bnei Menashe community distributing rice. (Photo/Courtesy Degel Menashe)

Though overlooked in the initial distribution, the “new” Bnei Menashe received double in the second, and that’s partly why more funds are needed. “We have exhausted whatever money has come,” Hangshing said.

This is not Schwartz’s first fundraiser for an isolated Jewish community. He previously raised $40,000 to help Inca Jews in Peru go through formal conversions and immigrate to Israel.

Ever since he was a law student at UC Berkeley, Schwartz has visited small Jewish communities in more than 30 countries, many of which are featured in his 2015 book “Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World’s Most Isolated Jewish Communities.” 

Now that he has young children, however, “the pace of visiting new communities and countries has leveled off,” he said.

A civil rights employment attorney who runs his own practice, Schwartz has continued to work with clients from home the past few months. One bright spot of quarantine, he said, is that he has had more time to devote to photography. Each day he posts a shot from his daily walks around his Oakland neighborhood on his Facebook page.

For Schwartz, the positive experience he had in Manipur — and his conviction that Jews are one big, global family — motivate him to offer support wherever it is needed.

“When the Bnei Menashe were taking me — a random tourist in his mid-20s — around, did they think that 20 years later I’d literally be helping to save their lives?” he mused. “I guess that shows where hospitality can lead. They were incredibly good to me. They received me like I was a long-lost cousin. And so all I’m doing is trying to return the favor.”

Scattered Among the Nations is accepting donations for the Bnei Menashe.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.