by Shavei Israel
This article by Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund was published in the Kulanu newsletter
Earlier this year, a momentous event took place in the history of Iberian Jewry. For the first time since the Spanish Inquisition, a descendant of forcibly converted Jews returned to Spain to conduct outreach work among his fellow Bâ€™nai Anousim (Crypto-Jews).
Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, who grew up on the island of Palma de Majorca, was dispatched to the area by Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, with the express aim of strengthening the bonds between the Jewish people and our brethren the Bâ€™nai Anousim. Since his arrival in the region, Rabbi Ben-Avraham has been paying regular visits to Barcelona, Alicante, Seville and Palma, where he has organized a variety of Jewish educational, social and cultural activities, which have drawn many Bâ€™nai Anousim closer to their roots.
It might sound fanciful, or even far-fetched, but it is a fact that more than five hundred years after Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sought to erase all vestiges of Jewish life on the Iberian Peninsula, a growing number of their victimsâ€™ descendants are now emerging from the shadows, seeking to reclaim their heritage.
The Bâ€™nai Anousim, Hebrew for “those who were coerced,” do not merely inhabit the pages of dusty old history books. They are a living, breathing phenomenonâ€¦men and women from all economic, social and cultural walks of life who are eager to forge anew their links with the Jewish people. And I believe we owe it to them as well as to their ancestors to extend a hand and to welcome them home.
For Rabbi Ben-Avraham, his outreach activities in Spain mark the latest step in his personal journey of return to the faith of his ancestors. Rabbi Ben-Avraham, who only learned of his Jewish ancestry as a child, when his mother told him about his heritage in an off-handed way, left Palma de Majorca at the age of 21 and moved to Israel. Here, he returned to Judaism, and later completed his studies and received rabbinical ordination. His story underscores the exciting phenomenon that is taking place today all across the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world.
Think about it: for centuries, their forbears lived outwardly as Catholics under the watchful eyes of the Inquisition, attending mass and feigning piety in an attempt to ward off those who would persecute them. But behind closed doors, many clung tenaciously to the faith of their ancestors, preserving the flame of Judaism and passing it on to future generations.
Over the past decade, I have seen this remarkable phenomenon firsthand, as I have met and worked with Bâ€™nai Anousim in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and the southwestern United States. I have heard their stories, studied their history, and devoted myself to assisting them, as they undertake their remarkable voyage back to the Jewish people.
In addition to Rabbi Ben-Avraham, Shavei Israel (Hebrew for those who return to Israel) also has a full-time emissary, Rabbi Elisha Salas, serving in northern Portugal, which historically had a large concentration of Bâ€™nai Anousim. And in Jerusalem, we operate Machon Miriam, a Spanish and Portuguese-language educational institute, where hundreds of Bâ€™nai Anousim have successfully prepared for their return to Judaism and the Jewish people.
But the issue of assisting the Bâ€™nai Anousim is a challenge of national proportions, and it cannot and must not be the province of any one organization or institution. This is a matter that touches on Jewish history and Jewish destiny, and it is the Jewish people as a whole that must embrace the Bâ€™nai Anousim and welcome them back into our midst.
Needless to say, the challenges often faced by Bâ€™nai Anousim can be daunting. Some communities slam the door in their faces, while others question their sincerity or cast doubt on their motivation. This often leads to a great deal of justifiable frustration and angst for many Bâ€™nai Anousim, who cannot understand why some of their fellow Jews would put obstacles in their path.
It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to do what we can to change this situation, through educating the Jewish public and decision-makers about the renaissance of the Bâ€™nai Anousim. There are a variety of means through which this can be accomplished, from organizing lectures to arranging events at local synagogues and community centers.
Gather material on the Internet, send it to your rabbi, and suggest it as a sermon topic. Write to Jewish organizations and leaders and press them to put the Bâ€™nai Anousim issue on the agenda of world Jewry.
Correcting an injustice five centuries old will take time and much patience and fortitude will be necessary. But with persistence and determination, we can right the historical wrong that was inflicted on the Bâ€™nai Anousim and their ancestors, and at last bring their long and painful journey to an end.