Birthplace: Imphal, Manipur, India
Aliya date: June 23, 2002
Occupation: Rabbi, photographer
Family status: Married, four children
Shlomo Gangte was born into a northeastern Indian people called Kuki-Chin-Mizo (depending on the region), some members of which claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, named collectively Bnei Menashe by Rabbi Eliahu Avichail.
About a century ago, the region where Gangte grew up was heavily converted to Christianity by British missionaries and colonial policy, and like many others his family outwardly converted. He says the pressure has remained very high to this day, and that it's difficult for a non-Christian to be buried in the capital city of Imphal.
"Up to a hundred years ago," he says, "our people kept the tradition of our forefathers, who came from the Jewish tribe. If you left the tradition of the forefathers, you became an outcast. Now it's exactly the opposite: If you leave Christianity for the traditions of your forefathers, you become an outcast."
Gangte never considered himself a Christian, but he liked children and in his late teens was asked by the community to look after the kids in Sunday school, sometimes serving as a role model for troubled teens. With access to the Bible, he began to research the New Testament and found it difficult to believe what was written there. He felt more Jewish than Christian.
"Even though I said I was Jewish, I still wanted to check what Judaism was. Just because there are two religions, and I feel one is false, it doesn't make the other one right."
He began to read the Old Testament and came to the conclusion that it was a living text, instructions on how to lead a fruitful life. He became involved with a minyan at the city's synagogue, built 35 years ago, praying from books that had been sent to the community, and to observe the Sabbath and a basic level of kashrut.
"What I liked about Judaism," he says, "was that it was practical. It wasn't some fancy theory."
Gangte says he never intended to come to Israel. "I was looking for the truth. There was no leader in the community who could teach Hebrew and give classes. So I took the responsibility on myself." He studied all the books of the Torah, and every Shabbat gave a two- or three-hour lesson before Minha. He says that people began to congregate in crowds of 50 or 100, especially on festivals, and that this continued for about six years.
"It was clear the community needed this, but I felt it became a question of repetition. And there was no shohet, no mohel, no kashrut supervisor, no rabbi. I knew that I needed to learn more."
Till then, Gangte had been running his own print shop and working as a photographer. He was married with two children, and his wife, Yemima, was a beautician with her own beauty shop. He told his wife that he had to go either to the US or to Israel to become a rabbi and help the community. She had been beside him in his faith throughout, providing the third Shabbat meal to as many congregants as would gather each week.
"She knew I liked to study, to improve my knowledge. We sold everything."
Leaving everything behind, Gangte and his family went to the Israeli Embassy in Delhi to ask for a tourist visa. "It was May, 43º Celsius, with two children, and we waited for almost two months, going to the embassy every day. When all the money was gone, with the help of Rabbi Avichail of Amishav, my uncle Gamliel Gangte and his son Rabbi Shimon Gangte, I got a visa."
The family spent three days in Kiryat Arba, two months in Gush Katif and eight months in Shavei Shomron, mostly as tourists studying in ulpan. "In the next year, I started studying at the Midrash Sephardi Yeshiva in [Jerusalem's] Old City." After five years of study, Shlomo is now a shohet, mohel, kashrut supervisor and rabbi, ordained by the Chief Rabbinate on October 22.
Gangte is the 11th of 12 children, a family of nine brothers and three sisters. "Before I came, they told me I shouldn't go so far, that they would provide me with whatever I needed. But I couldn't stay: They had all remained Christian, and I took a different path." He is the father of four children: Yiftah Kamthangsawn (11), Hadassah-Tinglalbiek (seven), Dvora-Heartfeltkim (two) and Rina-MoinunJoy (six months).
Gangte and his family have been living in Beit El during the five years of his yeshiva studies. He commuted every day to the Old City, usually by hitchhiking, leaving early in the morning before his children awoke and arriving late after they'd gone to sleep. He saw them mostly on Fridays and Saturdays.
To help pay for the family's caravan, Gangte works as a photographer. Since the Western Wall is only five minutes away from the yeshiva, he would get away for a part of the day to photograph religious ceremonies there. He was working in the kindergarten for part of the day, and then taking care of their children. At one point, when his son Yiftah was old enough to go to school, Shlomo asked the principal of the Talmud Torah if he could work in exchange for his son's tuition fees.
"So I cleaned the toilets and classrooms every night. Now my son has read the Pentateuch, and is studying the Prophets and the Mishna."
Gangte used to be a guitarist, having formed a band and recorded a CD. He also used to teach martial arts, and played soccer for the state, later becoming a Division A coach.
"Even before I joined [the minyan in Imphal], someone had given me a Hebrew primer about eight pages long that taught the Hebrew alphabet. I was a bookworm, I studied all day long, so within a week I could read the prayer book."
Gangte considers himself haredi and follows Rabbi Ya'acov Peretz. "Sephardim fulfill the obligations," he says by way of explanation, "but they don't do over and above the law."
"I'm a lone star. Out of 12 children, I'm the only Jew. Out of 70 nations, Israel is alone. Out of the Bnei Menashe community, I'm the only haredi. Always alone with God."
"Before I came, I had plans to change the whole world. Now that I'm a rabbi, I realize it's even hard to change myself."
Gangte used to travel around giving lessons to the various Bnei Menashe communities throughout the country, which beside Beit El include Kiryat Arba, Afula and Nitzan. He has already translated several religious books, including the Bible, prayer books, Pirkei Avot and the Haggada, into his local dialect. "With the help of the World Zionist Organization, it was printed and distributed here and in India." He has also recorded some of his lessons in Hebrew and his local dialect, and plans to distribute them by disc.
His hope now is to focus on forming a community here. "I'd like to have a building in Beit El, the first Bnei Menashe synagogue."
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