Michael Freund: The Indiana Jones of ‘lost Jews’

Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel

If you thought that the 10 lost tribes of Israel only refers to a biblical tale, think again. Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, is on a mission to find and bring back those “lost Jews” who dream of returning to their Jewish roots.

Freund’s search began in 1997 when he served as Israel’s deputy communications director under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He received a letter from a group in northeastern India called the Bnei Menashe who claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Menashe.

This letter sent Freund on a mission to learn all he could about the lost tribes of Israel, which ultimately led him to discover that there are “lost Jews” all across the world who have Jewish ancestry.

“The Jewish people are a very small people, and we live in a world that is increasingly hostile to us both as Jews and to the state of Israel,” Freund said.

“At the same time, there are literally millions of people around the world who have Jewish ancestry, meaning that their forefathers were once part of us, and in many instances, they were torn away from us,” he added.

In 2002, Freund founded Shavei Israel, which aims to help lost and hidden Jewish communities around the world to return to their Jewish roots.

“They were kidnapped from us, taken against their will, and nonetheless, many of them did the best they could to pass that down from generation to generation,” Freund explained.

Freund’s efforts to locate lost Jews have taken him to countries such as India, China, Spain, Portugal, and Poland. Shavei Israel has helped thousands to return to their roots and reconnect with the Jewish people.

“We live in a generation where we have the ability and the opportunity to do what couldn’t really be done until recently — namely, to reach back across the centuries and try to restore some of those people who were taken from us,” he explained. “I feel a strong sense of mission about this.”

Freund acknowledged that not all who have Jewish ancestry are aware of it or care about it. His work is not just about locating long-lost Jewish communities but also about strengthening the Jewish people for the future. 

“One cannot speak about the Jewish people only in terms of numbers and statistics,” Freund said. “Despite the efforts to bring people closer to religion, we must go and search out our lost brethren in order to fully strengthen the Jewish people.”

Freund’s work is not only important for the Jewish people, but it also sheds light on the history and heritage of millions of people around the world. 

“It’s not just something that exists in a dusty book on a bookshelf. It’s living and breathing human beings who 500 or 600 years after their ancestors were forcibly converted, still feel some kind of bond with the Jewish people. That’s remarkable,” he said.

Subscribe to This Week Unpacked

Each week we bring you a wrap-up of all the best stories from Unpacked. Stay in the know and feel smarter about all things Jewish.