A 500-YEAR ROUND TRIP: Spanish “Hidden Jews” Return To Judaism

Maria Villaralla knew that her mother’s family had Jewish origins in Spain. “We practiced Jewish tradition as much as we knew,” she says. a Ayelet Corona has Jewish roots on both sides and says her mother’s family came from a village in the Mexican state of Michoacan where most of the inhabitants “don’t mix milk and meat, didn’t work on Saturday and leave pebbles on tombstones.”

Ariela Gomez says her Jewish journey began while she was sleeping. “In my dream,” she said, “someone was calling ‘Judah of Israel has a message for you.'” That was 10 years ago in her native Chile; her dream reached fulfillment this year when she went to a mikve, the ritual bath. Along the way she discovered evidence of Jewish roots in her family.

Each of these stories – much richer than described here – belongs in the annals of the Jewish people, but they are no longer unique. Over the past 15 years or so, descendants of anousim – Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity in Spain and Portugal 500 years ago – have been emerging in Europe and the Americas. Despite five centuries of assimilationist pressures, despite families that typically wanted to hide their origins and despite rejection from mainstream Jewish communities and rabbis, the anousim have kept coming, some returning to Judaism, and some even making their way to Israel to do so.

Three years ago I visited a beachhead the anousim had established in the Jewish state. In Efrat, a settlement in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem, Eliyahu Birnbaum, former chief rabbi of Uruguay, and his wife, Renata, were running a religious ulpan for students from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking worlds. Though I saw a class that was much like other conversion courses – people motivated by a spiritual attraction to Judaism as well as those who were marrying Jews – about half the 16 students I met had Jewish roots.

At the same time, Rabbi Eliyahu Avichail was running his organization Amishav – dedicated to reaching out to Jewish descendants from India and Afghanistan to Ethiopia and the Latin world – from his Jerusalem living room. He had established a level of visibility within the rabbinate, but still faced obstacles of ignorance and bureaucracy.

But as Jewish attention was monopolized by other problems (the intifada began just three months after my visit to Efrat), a quiet revolution took place. On a day in May 2003, Villarama, Corona and Gomez told their stories at the Birnbaums’ ulpan – not in Efrat but in Jerusalem. And not just in Jerusalem but in Hechal Shlomo, the headquarters of the chief rabbinate, where Amishav now has its offices. A phenomenon that was literally on the fringes of Jewish life is now in the heart. “This class is double the size of what you saw three years ago,” Renata Birnbaum told me. “And we still have the ulpan in Efrat, which has also doubled.”

The movement of return has reached a critical mass in funding, staffing and the returnees themselves. Internet chat groups now connect Jewish descendants around the world. Where their ancestors went into cellars to perform Jewish rituals in isolation, they can now sit alone at their computers and connect to the Jewish world.

“We seek to strengthen the Jewish people spiritually and demographically by reaching out to lost Jews or their descendants and helping them to return,” says Michael Freund, once an adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and now Amishav’s executive director. “We also want to educate and to reach out, even to people whose goal does not include conversion.”

The ulpan in Jerusalem is officially the Conversion and Return Program of the Machon Miriam Institute for Jewish Studies – named for the late Miriam Freund-Rosenthal, Hadassah’s national president from 1956 to 1960. In addition to the ulpan, Amishav is now actively involved in outreach in Spain and Portugal. In May it brought together 30 Jewish descendants from small communities of anousim around the Iberian Peninsula for a leadership seminar in Barcelona. “All of the people who attended were known to us or recommended,” says Freund, who is the grandson of the ulpan’s namesake. “One of our goals is to pry open the Jewish world in terms of their approach to the anousim. The chief rabbi of Barcelona took part, as well as presidents of the Jewish communities of Spain and Barcelona.” Later in May, Amishav sent a full-time rabbi to Belmonte, the Portuguese town in which 180 anousim formally returned to Judaism 10 years ago. There are plans for a rabbi and a Jewish studies center in Majorca, where many Jewish descendants live.

In addition to raising the awareness of rabbis to the existence of anousim, Freund and other activists are trying to address what has become a contentious issue for some Jewish descendants. Many feel that a conversion ritual is a denial of the obstacles they and their ancestors faced to preserve their Jewishness and prefer a ceremony of “return.”

History may be on their side. “A ceremony of return is in the rabbinic literature,” Freund observes. “It was practiced in Amsterdam 150 years after the expulsion. We want to bring the halakhic literature of the past 500 years to the attention of the dayanim [judges] and the rabbis and we are putting together a handbook for rabbinic court judges.”

There is also the halakhic question of what to do with descendants who have proof or strong evidence of Jewish roots on their father’s side but not their mother’s. Freund cites the concept of “zera Yisrael” (seed of Israel), which applies to all descendants of Jews who were coerced into converting. “This status imposes an obligation on us to be welcoming,” he says. “My understanding is that there is no practical difference vis-a-vis whether a person of anousim background would trace his or her ancestry through his mother or his father.”

But just as growing numbers of anousim are making headway in their campaign for acceptance among religious leaders, secular authorities in Israel are putting up obstacles. When I visited the ulpan in May, students and teachers were distressed by a proposal that had just been raised by Interior Minister Avraham Poraz. The ministry, which handles citizenship, has traditionally been run by one of Israel’s religious political parties. But Poraz is from the militantly secular Shinui Party, which made substantial gains in the February 2003 election and became a partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition. Though he said he had no control over the Law of Return, which mandates automatic citizenship for people who convert to Judaism and then come on aliya, Poraz said he would no longer grant automatic citizenship to those who convert inside Israel. One of the concerns he expressed was the possibility of mass conversions by illegal foreign workers who feared deportation.

The plan aroused protests from across the religious and political spectrum – from the liberal daily Ha’aretz to the Reform and Conservative movements in Israel to Sharon, who eventually overruled Poraz – and nowhere were the protests more anguished than at Machon Miriam, many of whose students went to great trouble to come to Israel and pursue conversion. “It’s absurd what the government wants to do,” said 22-year-old Lorena Magalh’es of Brazil. “They think all we’re interested in is financial aid, but that doesn’t interest me at all. They are making a distinction between people who are ‘normal’ and those who converted, and halakha doesn’t allow a distinction.”


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