Finding Their Way Home

Thousands of men and women who claim descent from forced converts have set out on an emotional odyssey to regain their families’ original faith—Judaism.

Growing up in a Catholic family in the 1950’s in the old whaling town of New Bedford, Mass., Linda daCosta’s early life resembled that of her neighbors. When they socialized they would recall their Portuguese seafaring ancestors with pride. Her own had come from the Azores, an archipelago of mid-Atlantic islands. But there were differences.

“At home we were taught to check a raw egg for blood and soak meat in brine,” recalls daCosta. “In the spring my mother would insist upon getting ‘every crumb out of the house.’” Housecleaning was done on Fridays and there was little enthusiasm for attending church.

Only after she visited Israel in 1995—one of several visits to Israel she had felt compelled to make without knowing why—did she better understand that her family had been perpetuating certain Jewish rites. Before then, “I had not one single clue that my ancestors might have been Jewish,” she says.

Linda—now known as Yaffah Batya—formally returned to Judaism through intensive study and ritual purification. She lives in a suburb of Jerusalem and leads an active peer group for those, like herself, exploring a return to their ancestors’ faith.

Preferring the Hebrew term bnei anousim (children of forced converts) rather than crypto-Jews or the neutral conversos, many of these men and women trace descent from the mass of forcible conversions that took place on the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th century. Their ancestors later fanned out over northern Europe, the New World, Asia and Africa to escape the Inquisition.

Not all returnees are of Spanish and Portuguese origin. Take Italy, a country that historically had both Sephardim and Ashkenazim as well as Jews who had been there since Roman times. Over the centuries, generations of Italian Jews were also coerced into Catholicism, each town having its House of Catachumens, a sanctuary for Jews who agreed to accept Christ. These practices spawned hundreds of Italians, especially in southern Italy, Sicily and Sardinia, who today share the same dim awareness of a Jewish past.

“We have a new congregation in Trani made up entirely of returning anousim,” reports Massimo Mandolini, a professor of Italian language and civilization at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif. Mandolini was born in the Adriatic port city of Ancona. After researching his Jewish roots in an emotional odyssey that thrust him back into the arcane folkways and dialect of Italian Jews, he is undergoing a formal return to Judaism.

“Even in Warsaw people are now coming to the rabbi saying they think they are Jewish; can he help,” says Rabbi Jules Harlow of New York, an editor and translator of prayer books for the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.

Why now? Scholars say the Internet has given thousands the genealogical tools to help affirm a suspected Jewish past previously discussed only in whispers. Even more compelling, “the stigma of being Jewish is no longer what it was,” notes Harry Ezratty, a historian of Caribbean Jewish life.

Experts use words like “millions” regarding potential returnees, even if only a fraction make the leap. Consider Brazil: Among almost 200 million citizens of Brazil today, at least 40 percent, or 80 million, are deemed of Portuguese origin. Of these, at least one quarter, or 20 million, have Jewish blood, says Jacques Cukierkorn, the Brazilian-born rabbi at the New Reform Temple of Kansas City. He first ran the numbers in 1994 while completing a master’s thesis on the hidden Jews of Brazil. If 10 percent or fewer seek return, it still works out to almost two million.

Cities with already active communities of bnei anousim include Ruidoso, Carlsbad and Socorro in New Mexico; Denver and Pueblo in Colorado; Mexicali, Tijuana, Veracruz and Mexico City in Mexico; Guatemala City in Guatemala; Las Tunas in Cuba; and Bogata and Cartegena in Colombia.

Although no firm statistics exist, Seth Ward, former director of the Institute for Islamic-Judaic Studies at the University of Denver and a scholar of crypto-Jewish life, estimates that some 10,000 have already returned to some form of open Jewish observance in the past decade or so. It is a highly charged journey. “[Judaism] filled a void I always felt in my soul,” explains Sonya Loya of Ruidoso. A glass artist, Loya was raised as a Catholic, formally reclaiming her Judaism only last year.

In the United States, “it could change the tenor of Jewish life from a heavily Ashkenazi base to a more Hispanic one,” predicts Stanley Hordes, adjunct research professor at the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico and a founder of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies. But “there is a very big if,” he adds.

That “if ” centers on the response of the mainstream Jewish world on one side and the feelings of the bnei anousim on the other. As yet, there is not a lot of warmth between the two camps. Leaders of the various movements have undertaken no formal initiative, leaving it up to local rabbis to decide how to handle each situation.

Without an overall game plan, argues Ron Cohen, director of Communidad Israelita de Mexicali, a year-old congregation in Mexicali made up almost entirely of bnei anousim, these men and women are left in a state of confusion, receiving “different information at every turn.” Much depends on whether a particular rabbi will offer a program of return or conversion, either of which may be sanctioned by the local beit din.

Though the differences between them may appear slim, they are meaningful for the returnee. For instance, daCosta has found that Orthodox rabbis may tell someone going through conversion that he or she can violate the law of Shabbat (cook a meal, drive a car) until going to the mikvah because such an act is not yet a sin, since that person is not yet Jewish. Not so for a returnee.

Conservative Rabbi David Kunin of Edmonton, Alberta, similarly marks the differences in the material he teaches. His approach to a returnee “differs because I will focus more on the crypto-Jewish experience as a way to help them value their ancestors,” he explains. When it comes to the wording on the certificate, Kunin leaves out any mention that the returnee is entering Judaism from the outside, which is common in conversion.

Yet even a hint of conversion discourages more from coming forward. It’s a pity because “it gives us a unique window of opportunity,” insists Cohen. Born a Jew in Chicago, he has been leading an informal network that provides emerging communities in Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Brazil and Columbia with books, kippot and other needs. Added to this is the cultural chasm. Mandolini, who is being taught by Chabad rabbis, typically finds it difficult to feel “at one with the community,” he says, explaining, “it’s all so East European.”

Others do not get a sense of being wanted. DaCosta thinks this comes too often from being Hispanic, that it conjures up the image of someone poor and uneducated. “But we have software engineers,” she says, “doctors and business professionals like me.”

Even rituals defy easy integration, says Caitlin O’Sullivan Bromberg, cantor at B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in Albuquerque. “American Judaism can either be too Yiddish or too casual for someone with a formal Spanish Catholic upbringing,” she says. “Judaism Lite, as they see it, does not offer the mystery and spirituality they are seeking.”

The organized Sephardic world offers little solace, too. “We try to help,” says Esmé Berg, former director of the American Sephardi Federation, “but it’s on an ad hoc basis,” like the fund-raiser they hosted for daCosta a year ago.

What is happening is largely a reprise of former centuries. During other periods of mass return—such as the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese anousim to Amsterdam or the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries—the Jewish response was similarly mixed.

For many, the strict requirements of Jewish law for conversion become a hurdle— the detailed instruction, ritual purification and mandated circumcision. The complexity was highlighted at a conference called “Conversion and Reversion to Judaism” held at the Center for Jewish History in New York last March, where panelists discussed how difficult it has been for rabbis through the centuries to respond to the sensitivities of returnees while realizing their obligation to fully uphold Jewish law.

When all this is coupled with a sense of not being wanted, it’s little wonder that many bnei anousim linger on the sidelines or organize on their own. Consider the Bat-Tziyon Hebrew Learning Center, started by Loya in Ruidoso in 2004 as an educational and outreach initiative. Or Ezra L’Anousim, which organized a group of a dozen from the United States, Spain, Brazil, Colombia and Portugal to visit Israel for Passover this year. Some, like daCosta and Professor Avi Gross of Ben- Gurion University of the Negev, are pressuring for a wider use of a program of return as opposed to conversion. It is now under consideration by the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, says Shulamit Halevy, a doctoral student at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a longtime advocate for bnei anousim. Added to this are an expanding number of resources online.

A few bnei anousim are taking a leadership role by entering the rabbinate. Among them are Spanish-born Jordi Gendra, who graduated in June from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia; Juan Mejia from Bogota, a student at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; and Rigoberto Emmanual Viñas from Cuba, a rabbi since 1998 now at an Orthodox congregation in Yonkers, New York. (While these theological students and rabbis all underwent conversion, the other bnei anousim mentioned have or are studying with a rabbi as returnees.)

And the Jewish world is slowly awakening. Israel now offers two religious ulpanim in Spanish—intensive Hebrewlanguage courses aimed at newcomers. Additionally, last summer, for the first time three bnei anousim from Recife, Brazil, were invited by a group of Brazilian Jews on a 10-day visit to Israel courtesy of Shavei Israel, a group assisting returnees, and Taglit-Birthright, a philanthropic partnership working to strengthen Jewish identity.

The World Council of Conservative/ Masorti Synagogues recently sent Harlow and his wife, Navah, to Lisbon to help 18 Portuguese complete their conversion requirements. The group had already established its own congregation, Kehillat Beit Yisrael.

Cantor Bromberg in Albuquerque sets aside one Friday night service each month for prayers chanted partially in Spanish. She also includes more Ladino melodies.

Four years ago, Cukierkorn published a Spanish-language introduction to Judaism. Titled “HaMadrij: Guide to the Values and Practices of Modern Judaism” (European Association of Jewish Studies), his guide is being mentioned to rabbis who call the central office of the Union for Reform Judaism for help, says Kathy Kahn, its director of outreach and synagogue community. But Kahn acknowledges that “we need to learn” how to better handle the phenomenon.

Full integration may take several generations. “The ones coming in now may never be totally comfortable,” says Bromberg, but ideally, “their children will be.”