Hispanic descendants hear call of homeland

ORLANDO, Fla. – Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Wendy Canelones was curious about the custom her grandmother and great-grandmother had of lighting candles on Friday afternoon.

She assumed it was just an old habit. But she was unaware, as were her relatives, that they were carrying on a centuries-old Jewish tradition of welcoming the Sabbath with the lighting of candles every Friday at sunset.

It wasn’t until she was an adult that Canelones, an Orlando, Fla., resident, discovered she was of Jewish heritage. She came to understand her early fascination with that culture and religion as well as where some family rituals came from. “The blood of Abraham is in us,” said Canelones, 37. “It calls us.”

She now works with Aliyah Sepharad International, a Sanford, Fla.-based group for Hispanics of Jewish ancestry who wish to get back to their religious roots. The organization’s ultimate purpose: to help them make Aliyah, the sacred mandate to return to Israel.

Spanish and Jewish history have been intertwined for centuries. Some historians believe the Jews began their immigration to the Iberian Peninsula after the destruction of Solomon’s first temple in 586 BC. These Jews were called Sephardic. They grew strong in numbers, and their influence is evident in Spanish architecture, food and customs. During the Spanish Inquisition of the late 15th century, Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism were killed or forced out of the country. Others pretended to convert and secretly practiced their religion, preserving its customs and rituals for generations.

Because they were forced to suppress their beliefs, many Hispanic descendants of Sephardic Jews grew up not knowing about their heritage.

This is rapidly changing.

“There is a phenomenon going on in the world right now with what we call ‘returning Jews,’ ” said Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami.

Rabbi Gary Fernandez, who heads Aliyah Sepharad International, said his organization is the only one in the U.S. whose mission is to help Sephardic Jews return to Israel.

“God promised the Negev (southern Israel) to the people of Sepharad (believed to be the name given to the Iberian Peninsula),” said Fernandez, citing a prophecy from the book of Obadiah in the Bible. “We are working toward making that a reality.”

Fernandez said he went to Israel to discuss his plans with the manager of the city of Negev, who told the rabbi he was the first person to ever approach him about relocating Hispanic Jews.

But Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up Christian, first will have to overcome a few hurdles. Under the Jewish law of return, the Israeli government assists with housing and other needs for those wanting to go back to the land of their ancestors. But in order to be allowed in, the law requires evidence that at least one grandparent was a practicing Jew. Descending from Jews alone is not enough, Katz said.

The alternative is to convert to Judaism, as many in Fernandez’s group have done. But because they also believe in Jesus, this could complicate matters.

“Most authorities in Israel would argue that the religion they practice is not Judaism,” Katz said. “That would make it more difficult for them.”

Fernandez understands what he’s up against. “Someone has to start somewhere,” he said. “If it is going to take years to navigate this process, we’ll do it.”

For Canelones, who is confident she and her husband will make Aliyah in two years, it comes down to a question of faith. “It is the land God promised to me and my ancestors,” she said. “He has never gone back on his promises.”


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