One of the more tantalizing mysteries of Jewish history is the possibility of the discovery of lost Jews.
Since the time of Sennacherib in the 7th century BCE, the question of lost Jews has been one that has received a lot of attention. Today, with the return of Jews from all over the world to the State of Israel, the subject has never been more relevant.
According to various genetic/DNA studies conducted over the past decade, 20% of men in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) have Jewish genetic ancestry. In Brazil, estimates are that 5-10 million people are descendants of so-called Bnei Anousim - descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity. This phenomenon spans the world, potentially reaching millions more.
Arutz Sheva spoke to both organizations about the work that they are doing to reconnect Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent to their Jewish roots.
Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit, has launched a new initiative to help Spanish and Portuguese descendants of Bnei Anousim reconnect with their Jewish Heritage, while Reconectar, which has an Israeli base but is mainly located in South and Central America, has an ongoing outreach liaison program with whom members of the community can contact in order to learn more about their heritage.
Michael Freund, Founder and Director of Shavei Israel, told Arutz Sheva about the challenges of discovering who is a descendant of the Bnei Anousim.
“More than five centuries after Portuguese Jewry was compelled to convert to Catholicism, there are of course many challenges to identifying people with a Bnei Anousim background. There are some who have family trees stretching back over the centuries which prove that their ancestors only married among themselves down through the generations, but in most cases it involves more detective work.”
"Clues to uncover"
Ashley Perry, the Director of Reconectar, likewise described the detective work needed.
“There are a lot of clues that we need to uncover. People may not have a heritage stating that they were Jewish, but their name may signify it, and some of the customs they keep may point to it. We do not have a 100% answer yes or no, which is why if people want to fully return to Judaism, they have to undergo a conversion, but according to a response published by Rabbi Soloveitchik, they do not need to say a blessing on the conversion.”
In an effort to help those who may think that they are descended from Jewish ancestry, Shavei Israel has published an online book that will help people who think they are descendants, identify some of the tell-tale signs. The unprecedented 109-page guide is aimed at assisting the millions of people in Brazil, Portugal and elsewhere who may have a long-lost Jewish lineage reconnect to their roots.
According to press release by Shavei Israel “the book covers all the major questions someone at the beginning of their process of Jewish discovery might have.”
One of the primary aims of the book Freund said “is to provide people with the tools they need to begin assessing their roots by looking at family customs and family names.” These as well as DNA advances can help provide clues to one’s Jewish ancestry. “I want to get people to start asking questions and digging into their past in the hopes that this will encourage them to uncover their possible Jewish connection.”
“We are at the beginning of an historic turning point, one that will see millions of people throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world reconnecting with their Jewish roots,” Freund declared.
When asked why it is so important for the about the return of the Bnei Anousim to return to Judaism Freund responded by saying: “The Bnei Anousim are our brothers and sisters. Their ancestors were taken from us, they were essentially kidnapped from the Jewish people. And yet with remarkable courage and determination, many continued to practice Judaism in secret down through the generations, despite the persecution of the Inquisition. We owe it to them and their ancestors – and to ourselves! – to bring back as many of their descendants as possible.”
“The Bnei Anousim are unique because of the breadth and scope of the phenomenon, which can be found in just about every Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking country around the world. In addition, the story of the Bnei Anousim is one of heroism in the face of tragedy, and determination in the face of disaster, which is what makes it so inspiring and compelling.”
Both organizations are dedicated to helping the Bnei Anousim, and neither is interested in coercing anyone to learn more about their heritage. “Our goal is first and foremost to help the Bnei Anousim to reconnect with the Jewish people and Israel,” said Freund.
“I don’t believe in coercion of any sort. If there are Bnei Anousim who want to formally return to the Jewish people and make Aliya, then of course we help them. We leave it up to each individual to decide if and how they want to interact with their Jewish ancestry. The important thing is to ensure that the Jewish spark within them continues to burn brightly,” Freund explained.
Perry said that his organization is kind of a “matchmaking” organization, making the connection between the individual and their Jewish roots. “We don’t want to push someone who isn’t interested. We will simply help those who are. That is what we are about, helping people discover their Jewish roots and heritage if they are interested in doing so.”
Freund pointed out that the return of the Bnei Anousim to the Jewish people was foretold.
“Don Isaac Abarbanel, the great rabbi and financier who was himself expelled from Spain in 1492, writes in his commentary to the Books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah that a time will come when the Anousim will one day return to the Jewish people. We are witnessing the beginning of the fulfillment of his vision, and it behooves us to roll up our sleeves and do everything we can to help the Bnei Anousim to return to the Jewish people. Doing so will strengthen us qualitatively and quantitatively, spiritually and demographically.”
“The numbers of descendants of Bnei Anousim is vast. We believe that the total number exceeds tens of millions of people; their self-discovery as Jews can greatly impact and enrich the international Jewish community,” says Freund. “Our mission is to support anyone who is in search of their Jewish ancestry and we are thrilled with the outpouring of interest, especially at a time when we are witnessing a resurgence in European anti-Semitism.”