The Lost Tribes of Israel
Some Jewish communities around the world have ancient Jewish heritage and consider themselves descendants of the “Lost Tribes” of Israel. Around 926 B.C.E., the kingdom of Israel split in two. Previously, all twelve tribes of Israel had been united under the monarchies of Saul, David, and Solomon. But when Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascended to the throne, the ten northern tribes rebelled and seceded from the union. This left only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin—under the control of the king in Jerusalem. From that time on, the tribes were divided into two nations, which came to be called the House of Israel (the ten northern tribes) and the House of Judah (the two southern tribes).
When the Assyrians conquered the House of Israel around 722 B.C.E., they deported the native populations to other places throughout the Assyrian kingdom. Many Israelites made their way across the Silk Road ending up in Asia and Africa, where they intermarried with the peoples among whom they settled. They eventually abandoned their distinct identity, and their culture was lost to history. These are the groups who are referred to as the “Lost Tribes” of Israel.
More rigorous scholarship about Jewish migration in Africa and Asia is needed, and such studies are being designed by the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University:
There are quite a number of peoples today who cling to the ancient tradition that they are descended from the Jewish Lost Tribes: the tribesmen of Afghanistan, the Mohammedan Berbers of West Africa, and the six million Christian Igbo people of Nigeria. Unquestionably, they all practice certain ancient Hebraic customs and beliefs, which lends some credibility to their fantastic-sounding claims.
According to conversion advocate Lawrence Epstein, Rabbi Avichail distinguishes between the conversions that occur for 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 [perjorative term for Anusim] 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.