Jewish past no longer a family secret

DOWNEY – It was a long journey of 500 years for the Benavides family to reclaim its Jewish roots.

Their family goes back more than six centuries to the time of the Renaissance in Spain. Now it includes parents Josh and Miriam, grandmother Hilda, and the youngsters Ari, Shimshon, Asisah and Rafi.

For Jews, 1492 is much more than the year that Columbus set sail on the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. It was the year that the Inquisition in Spain came to a head and half the Jewish population of Spain was expelled because they refused to convert to Catholicism.

According to Rabbi Efraim Warshaw of Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, “the Benavides family was one of the many tens of thousands of Spanish Jewish families who struggled for five centuries of persecution. They were forced to move from country to country, to support themselves as outcasts of Hispanic society and at the same time preserve their Jewish identity and heritage.”

“I admire these families for the perseverance, in spite of the overwhelming odds against their quest to maintain their Jewishness,” the rabbi continued.

Many thousands (perhaps even tens of thousands) of “secret Jews” from Central and South America have come to the United States, settling in the Southwestern states. Most never even realized that they had Jewish antecedents, but as they learn more about Jews in America, and the freedom in which they live, something has clicked as they recall remnants of Jewish rituals practiced by their parents or grandparents. Rabbis all throughout these border states have had many knocks on their doors by such individuals, wondering if they might be Jewish and seeking to learn more.

Rabbi Warshaw believes that, like most Crypto Jews, as the generations passed on, the Benavides family gradually lost the bits of Judaism that their earlier generations had tried to pass on. Having no Jewish books, guides or calendars (and certainly no teachers or rabbis whatsoever), and living in fear of discovery, most Jewish traditions slipped away in the course of the past 25 generations. Most common of these was the mother and grandmother lighting candles on Friday night (the Sabbath eve) or eating crackers on the 15th of April (for Passover), said the rabbi. Historical background

King Fernando and Queen Isabella, who ruled their kingdom at the end of the 15th century, had come under the sway of the Catholic Church. Queen Isabella had, in particular, become a fervent and intolerant Catholic and heeded the pernicious advice of her nefarious Inquisitor General, Torquemada.

He was a fanatical archbishop who demanded that the king and queen exile the Jews because they rejected Jesus as their savior. They most likely also fell out of favor because they had become too successful in many areas of Spanish life, and had amassed a share of the wealth of the nation by virtue of their success in many fields.

In 1492, “when Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” that very same year brought about the terrible end to what had been an illustrious chapter in the life of Spanish Jewry known as the “Golden Age.” About half of the quarter-million Spanish Jews, or some 125,000 men, women and children, decided to leave everything behind. They went into exile to Turkey, Portugal and other Mediterranean countries with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The other half who chose to remain in Spain, about 125,000, were forced to become Catholic. And those who were found still to be secretly practicing their ancestral religion in their hidden cellars were to be tortured to death until they repented and accepted Christianity, just before they breathed their very last breath.

The Benavides’ discovery

Joshua Benavides grew up in Honduras as a child of a crypto-Jewish father who was not at all anxious to pass on to his son any knowledge or reference to his Jewish heritage (which was, in his eyes, a history of suffering and persecution). Josh, from around the ages of 6-7, vividly recalls seeing his father’s mother and his mother quietly lighting candles every Friday evening.

As an adult, reflecting on this, Joshua is convinced that they had no idea of the meaning and significance of this ritual, practiced for generations in his family. The candle lighting ushered in the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evenings, but no one seemed to know that at all. It was in his eyes a secret ritual which was never explained, and it was only done once the drapes were drawn so that no neighbors could invade their privacy.

Thus was lit the Jewish flame and “the Divine Spark” in the heart and mind of little Josh – a curious boy who yearned to know more about the origins of his family. Years later as an adult, when he eventually moved to California from Honduras, he realized that he was a survivor of the ancient curse of anti-Semitism and it was his duty to study Judaism, to identify with the Jewish community and to seek out other Jews.

Discovering Temple Ner Tamid

Eventually, just around a year ago, he found his way to the welcome arms of Temple Ner Tamid of Downey. How did this occur?

“It was a simple Google search on the Internet for a synagogue that was near our family in South Gate,” Joshua said. “Temple Ner Tamid of Downey popped up on my computer screen, and the next Friday night I was there at 7:30 p.m. for services.”

Thus began the relationship with the congregation, which took Josh and Maria, Josh’s mother, Hilda and four wonderful children into the hearts of the leadership of this congregation and the membership of the Downey Jewish community.

Temple members are thrilled to participate in the religious duty of bringing back long-lost Jews to their faith and making them a warm, spiritual home and a place of honor at Temple Ner Tamid.

“I am delighted that we could all participate in this important Mitzvah,” said Miriam vice president of ritual at the temple.

Tokens of affection for Josh and Miriam and their family were expressed in the gifts given to them at the Ceremony of Return held June 25. A set of eight silver wine goblets for the Sabbath was presented by David Saltzman, temple president, on behalf of the congregation. A beautiful Mezeuzah to affix to the front door was given by Ingrid Altman from the women of the Sisterhood. A challah board set was presented by Jim Pinsky as a gift from the Brotherhood.

Additional gifts were also given by individual members of the temple family, all of which were Jewish home ritual objects for use in holiday celebrations such as Sabbath candlesticks, a ceremonial Seder plate, a Chanukah menorah and a Havdalah set.

“The active participation and enthusiasm for Judaism which the Benavides family has demonstrated in the past year has contributed much positive energy to Temple Ner Tamid,” Saltzman said.

The congregation welcomes Jews of all backgrounds and national origin. For more information, contact Rabbi Efraim Warshaw at (562) 861-9276 or

Read more: The Downey Patriot – Jewish past no longer a family secret


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