Until 100 years ago the Bnei Menashe, like other peoples here in the Northeast of India, were animists - they believed that nature and animals had spiritual qualities. They practiced their own ancient religions and had their own time-honored customs, including ritual sacrifice.
At the end of the 19th century, Christian missionaries got to them, and with these missionaries came evangelical fervor. According to the story here, in the 1950s two men from the Kuki clan each had separate visions telling them that they were the lost Israelite tribe of Menashe and must return home to Israel. When they awoke from their sleep, they started spreading their vision amongst the Kuki. Slowly people started calling themselves Bnei Menashe, and the practice of Judaism started competing with Christianity.
Speaking to the Bnei Menashe here in Kangpopki, I am told something that I didn't fully grasp before, but which is quite startling: All of the Kuki in Northeast India - as well as elements of the tribe in neighboring Myanmar, totaling some three million people - are considered, by the two men who had the visions and by the current leadership, to be Bnei Menashe.
So even though only a tiny minority of the Kuki tribe have embraced Judaism and want to make aliya, they are all potential Jewish converts and Israeli citizens. All three million of them.
The vast majority of the Kuki throughout this region were converted to Christianity beginning in the first decades of the 19th century. There are currently some 7,200 who practice Judaism (according to the Shavei Israel organization, which assists "lost Jews" seeking to return to the Jewish people), or 30,000 (according to the chairman of the Kuki Cultural Welfare Committee in Kohima). The souvenir booklet commemorating 25 years of Judaism in Northeast India puts the number of practicing Jews at 2,300. It was published in 2001. Seven years later, with 1,500 from the community having since moved to Israel, even the lowest estimate is more than three times that high.
Whatever the true figure, it is peanuts compared to the potential number of converts. This is not to say that there is a secret plan to convert them all, or that Shavei Israel, Amishav (a Jerusalem-based organization that works to find descendants of the 10 Lost Tribes and reconnect them with the Jewish people) or anybody else is actively working to make inroads into this community for potential conversion. Remember, Judaism is a religion that forbids proselytizing.
In general, the Kuki are staunchly Christian. They love Israel because they have been told that Israel was the birthplace of Christianity. But as the practice of Judaism spreads amongst the Bnei Menashe Kuki, they themselves are drawing others into the fold. They say that they go from village to village spreading their message, following the good evangelical traditions in which their parents and grandparents were schooled by the missionaries.
This evangelical spirit also explains other aspects of the Bnei Menashe mind-set. When you ask them about who they are and where they're going, they answer largely in slogans and programmed responses. Question: Why do you want to move to Israel? Answer: It is the land of my forefathers and I want to pray three times a day; I want to be able to practice Judaism in the land of Jacob and Isaac...[...]