Columbus of hidden Jews
He wanders Amazon jungles, travels to Chinese villages, searches Spain for Marranos, and sees India’s Bnei Menashe as his life’s mission. Michael Freund has an obsession: Discovering remote Jews
It happened six years ago. Michael Freund decided to go on a South American adventure. Armed with high motivation, he entered a small canoe and went off into the Amazon River of Peru, quickly finding himself among wild jungles filled with trees and animals resembling those which appear in children’s nightmares.
Suddenly, he noticed a group of Native Americans in a canoe approaching him. He waved to them. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed something strange – the names of their boats were typical Moroccan Jewish names: Ben-Zaken, Levi, Ben-Shushan.
Freund, the Christopher Columbus of Jews, smiled with satisfaction. Right then and there he knew his journey was a successful one: Another lost Jewish tribe had been found.
“I went to visit a village in the area, and on the way we stopped to buy drinks,” he recalls. “I saw a sign: ‘The Ben-Shimol family.’ I knocked on the door and a gentleman of about 80 answered.”
“’I am from Israel,’ I told him. He looked at me excitedly and replied: ‘I am a Jew and my father is a Jew.'”
The elderly man invited Freund into his house and showed him a large picture of his father – a Moroccan Jew who had married a Peruvian. “He barely knew his father, who had about 20 children,” Freund said. “The only thing he received from his father was his name – along with the one Jewish commandment he had taught him: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ I couldn’t believe it. In a remote village in the Amazon, you find Jews. Over the years, several hundred of these Jews have moved to Israel and undergone formal conversion.
The Spanish Wailing Wall
Freund, an American immigrant, has a mission: Locating remote and hidden Jews and descendants of the Jewish people.
He devotes all his efforts and resources to this project as founder and director of the Shavei Israel organization, which works to strengthen the connection between descendants of Jews and Israel and the Jewish people.
According to assessments, he has put his own money into the project while raising large sums in donations from others. His organization is active in many countries throughout the world and helps different communities: From the descendants of Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to as Marranos) in Spain, Portugal and South America, to remote communities in places such as China.
“It’s a type of fixation that doesn’t let me rest,” said Freund. “I feel obligated to these communities forgotten by history, but they haven’t forgotten us. Several years ago I visited Palma de Mallorca in Spain. There was a Jewish community there until 1435, several decades before the expulsion. In one of the alleyways of Palma’s old city, I saw people passing by a wall, nonchalantly rubbing their hands along the stone and quietly kissing it as they walked by. It turned out the wall was part of a church known as ‘Mount Zion’, which had been built centuries ago on the ruins of Palma’s synagogue. The bottom part of the wall is all that remains of the synagogue, and the Chuetas (descendants of Palma’s Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism centuries ago) had retained the custom of touching the stones and then kissing their hand to show that they hadn’t forgotten their Jewish heritage,” he said.
Over the years Freund has succeeded in helping thousands of Jewish descendants reconnect to their roots. In Jerusalem, he created a conversion institute known as “Machon Miriam Jerusalem Seminary”, which is named after his late grandmother Dr. Miriam Freund-Rosenthal. The institute has assisted numerous descendants of Jews from Latin America, Spain and Portugal to reconnect with their roots.
By all accounts, there are millions of Marranos throughout the world. “They are descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted under duress, many of whom continued to practice Jewish customs in secret despite the persecution they faced at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition,” he said and added, “The Marranos are a living and breathing phenomenon, but the Jewish world largely ignores them.”
But Marranos are not the only community in the Spanish-speaking world to have caught Freund’s attention. Another community is the Inca Jews of Trujillo in northwestern Peru.
‘Hardly any of them remove their kippah.’ Freund with Jewish friend (Photo: Yohanan Paltuel)
When he visited the town of Trujillo in Peru he was in for a surprise. “Much to my amazment, outside of the plane I saw a large group of the Inca Jews waiting for me. They call themselves ‘Bnei Moshe’ (the children of Moses). There were dozens of men wearing kippahs and women dressed in modest clothing, and they were waving Israeli flags and singing songs in Hebrew,” he recalled.
“The president of the community, Luhan Aquilles, led us to a large bus covered with blue-and-white and the Star of David. They then drove us to a small village on the outskirts of the city, where Luhan said they had built a kind of kibbutz. The community members had moved there in order to be able to live a religious Jewish lifestyle. They took us to their synagogue, where we recited the afternoon prayer. I closed my eyes and listened to them pray. For a moment I almost forgot where I was – in Trujillo and not in Israel,” Freund said.
Kaifeng is a typical Chinese city. It is the last place on earth where one would expect to find descendants of Jews. But there too Freund found a community clinging to its Jewish roots.
“During one of my visits in the city I walked along an old street where most of the Jews in the community used to live. While walking down the street I saw a Mezuzah on a door, which is not something you see every day in a place like China,” said Freund.
“I knocked on the door, and an old lady in her 80s named Zhao answered. While inside her house, I saw that she had various Jewish items proudly on display in her modest home, such as a Kiddush cup, a Star of David on the wall, and beautiful paper crafts she had made which depicted Jewish themes.”
Zhao told Freund she was the last remaining member of the Kaifeng Jewish community who lives on her street, as the others had all moved away to different parts of the city. “I have a granddaughter who recently became interested in her roots and in Judaism and has thoughts about making aliyah,” she told him.
Later that evening, Freund met with a number of young Chinese Jewish descendants, including Zhao’s granddaughter. “I was deeply impressed by their determination to move to Israel,” said Freund.
Zhao’s granddaughter was among the most vocal of the group, telling Freund that “It is the land of our forefathers, and it is our dream and the dream of ancestors that we should go back to Israel.” Freund wrote down their information and when he returned to Israel he was able to obtain visas for several members of the community, including Zhao’s granddaughter.
“After a year of intensive studies, they all succeeded in converting to Judaism under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. Now they all live in Jerusalem and some of them study at the Hebrew University,” he said.
And that is not Freund’s only success. A number of years ago he visited the village of Vysoky in a remote part of southern Russia, in order to learn first-hand about the Subbotnik Jews – descendants of a group of Russian peasants who converted to Judaism over two centuries ago (not to be confused with Subbotniks who remained Christian).
Among the more well-known descendants of the Subbotnik Jews are former IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, retired Israel Police Northern District Commander Alik Ron, and others.
In the village Freund was approached by an older Subbotnik Jewish woman named Tanya who told him all of her family had already made aliyah but she was stuck there because of a change in Israel’s policy towards the Subbotnik Jews.
In addition, the members of the community said they were suffering from anti-Semitism at the hands of their non-Jewish neighbors. “They handed me an emotional letter they had written the prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, in which they requested authorization to make aliyah,” Freund said.
“The matter was close to Sharon’s heart, and after I gave him the letter he ordered to allow the 20 families who had signed it to make aliyah,” Fruend added. Among them was Tanya.
Lost tribe of Israel
Freund is apparently the primary address for remote Jewish communities and descendants of Jews. They turn to him from all over the world and ask that he visit them.
This began over 15 years ago, after Freund made aliyah from New York and went to work for Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister. He served as deputy to the communications director, the late David Bar-Ilan.
One day a letter from the Bnei Menashe community in northeastern India addressed to the prime minister found its way to Freund’s office. The Bnei Menashe, who claim to be descents of a lost tribe of Israel, had been writing to every Israeli premier from Ben-Gurion onwards, but they had never received a reply.
After studying the matter and meeting with members of the community, Freund brought about an annual arrangement with the Interior Ministry that enabled 100 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel, undergo conversion and receive citizenship.
Subsequently, his organization, Shavei Israel, built educational centers in India for the Bnei Menashe. In March 2005, after a two-year investigation, the Chief Rabbi of Israel Rabbi Shlomo Amar recognized the community’s Jewish roots. Over the past decade, approximately 1,700 Bnei Menashe have made aliyah. Another 7,232 Bnei Menashe remain in India, awaiting permission to move to Israel.
The last time Freund succeeded in obtaining permission to bring a group to Israel was in 2007, when 230 Bnei Menashe from the Indian state of Manipur made aliyah. Since then, the aliyah has stopped.
Freund is a gentle person. He doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t raise his voice. But he is frustrated. “I simply do not understand why these wonderful people are stuck and forced to wait years before being allowed to fulfill their dreams. This is a big mistake. The Bnei Menashe want to be here and deserve to be here,” he says.
“When I was there I met a family whose son is a lone soldier serving in the IDF, risking his life, while the Israeli government doesn’t allow his family to reunite with him here. There are currently 18 lone soldiers like him who are stuck in India. It’s heartbreaking.”
Some claim that they want to come to Israel to improve their financial situation.
“If this was the case, then one would expect a certain percentage of them to leave Israel and move to the West, but they’ve all remained here. After they get here hardly any of them remove their kippah. They are very religious and committed Zionists. We’ve conducted a comprehensive study of the Bnei Menashe immigrants and found that only 5% of the community is supported by welfare. The rest of them work for a living.”
One of the arguments raised in the past against the aliyah of the Bnei Menashe was that most of them were moving to settlements.
“During their first year of the conversion process there was no government support, and the only places that were willing to take them initially were the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. But this resulted in a mistaken belief that they were all moving to settlements out of some political agenda. Hence, the last two groups of immigrants who came here were directed to communities in the north and the south of the country.”
Are you sure that all these groups you deal with are really of Jewish descent?
“We have to be careful because it’s easy to get carried away and to start seeing Jews everywhere. So I’m always skeptic as first. Two years ago I received a letter from a group of Native Americans in the United States, who claimed that they were of Jewish descent. They sent me various materials, and I understood fairly quickly that their claim was without any basis. So I answered them politely and said that I thought there was insufficient evidence to substantiate their claim. While every person has the right to define himself as he wishes. It is not my place to judge them.”
What motivates you?
“I see it as my mission in life. There are people who travel great distances to look for spectacular views. I go to look for Jews. We are a small nation and we don’t have all that many friends out there. So we should be reaching out to descendants of the Jewish people to cultivate a stronger connection with them. Two years ago a genetic study was carried out in Spain and Portugal which found that 20% of the male population of Iberia has Jewish genetic material. Because of all the persecution we have endured throughout the centuries, the Jewish nation was scattered to the four corners of the earth. So it isn’t surprising that there are traces and remnants of Jews in all sorts of remote places. There are millions of such people out there and my dream is to reach each and every one of them. It behooves us to reach out to them, because we only stand to benefit from it in a range of fields, from public diplomacy to tourism.”