In 2006, when, after 10 years in this country I moved temporarily to Madrid, I began to notice many “Jewish-looking” faces. One of the programs at Radio Sefarad, where I worked, involved people writing in to ask whether their names had Jewish origins. My curiosity awakened, I began cross-referencing every new name I learned with the list of Sephardi names on Jeff Malka’s website. This opened up the realization that the streets were full of people whose names had Converso origins, such as Cruz (cross), Torres (towers), Iglesias (churches), Flores (flowers), Fuentes (fountains or sources) and so on – names taken on in medieval times to hide Jewish identities.
Thanks to the Spanish custom of women retaining their maiden names and children bearing both parents’ surnames, examples of which are Iglesias Torres and Flores Flores (coupled with the fact that almost everyone appeared to have a home village that they returned to on weekends) it was easy to assume endogamy among a sector of the population. I concluded that some 20 percent of Spaniards were likely to be Jewish by maternal descent, although largely unaware of this fact.
What would happen, I wondered, to those who in time came to understand their lost identities? What if all they wanted was a little information, and to enjoy the romance of belonging to the Jewish people? What about those who did decide to convert? Would the road be smooth or would the intransigence of institutions and bigoted members of our tribe leave them with a bitter taste? Who was going to help them without making demands? Who would reach out to them gently, without insisting on radical changes in their lifestyles in order to have the longing of their Jewish souls recognized? Who would be their champion and help them return formally if they so desired, or just help them learn about their ancestry and history, how to celebrate a Shabbat or just say a prayer, or learn the alef bet? Over time I had the fortune to meet, travel with, write about, and above all befriend Genie Milgrom (www.geniemilgrom.com), the poster child of the Anusim, author of My 15 Grandmothers, and president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami, president of Tarbut Sefarad-Fermoselle in Spain and president of the Society for Crypto Judaic Studies at Colorado State University in Colorado Springs. Having converted to Judaism in her 30s, she was eventually able to trace an unbroken matrilineal line back to Spain and Portugal. I learned much from her and others I met at a congress in Zamora, Spain, in 2013, organized by Prof. Jesus Jambrina of Viterbo University, Wisconsin.
Last October, Milgrom testified at the Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities. It examined testimony from experts and Anusim in an effort to identify how the State of Israel should tackle the issue of this emerging community.
The chairman of the Knesset caucus was Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov, and the director Ashley Perry, a British immigrant, president of Reconectar, an organization seeking to bring together the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities and the Jewish world – founded last year.
PERRY CAN trace his direct ancestry back to Manuel Perez, born in Amsterdam in the 16th century. His original family name, Perez, also spelled Peres (medieval Jews often varied the spellings of their names) hails from Spain and Portugal. He grew up in London as a member of the Spanish and Portuguese community, the oldest Jewish community in the UK, as well as in Amsterdam and New York City.
“The first Jews across the Western world were all Sephardim,” Perry says, “including many who had been forcibly converted [to Catholicism]. We have a beautiful long rich tradition and they [those who are waking up to their roots] want to connect to the traditions of their ancestors, the culture, the music, the liturgy that they were torn from.”
Regarding what differentiates those like him from the Anusim, Perry cites “timing and luck.”
“My family joined and helped create the new Jewish communities in Amsterdam and then London, well over 400 years ago,” managing to escape the Iberian peninsula during one of the few windows of opportunity that presented themselves, and return to a full Jewish way of life.
He tells how, in 1497, the Portuguese king Manuel caused the Jews within his borders to gather in Lisbon, then had them surrounded by his army while “holy water” was sprinkled on them by priests. Now, there were no more Jews in Portugal.
“Over the past few hundred years, individuals and families would return [to Judaism] and seek help from Jewish communities abroad; or at certain times in Jewish history the communities [themselves] would [offer] help, and they [the returnees] were always fully accepted with little ceremony,” Perry says.
He explains that Iberian Jewry was forcibly converted at varying times throughout history (as were German, French, Hungarian, Yemenite and Iranian Jews).
“Therefore rabbis had to constantly deal with this question of forced conversion and the halachic status of these people. In almost all cases the rulings were that they were full Jews.”
Perry points out that “Rashi, Maimonides and Rav Yosef Caro, among many others, all had to deal with the question of whether returning forced converts should be regarded as Jews or as non-Jews, according to Halacha. All of them concluded that if these people had managed to escape, they should just be allowed to return [to the formal Jewish community]. Even other later rabbis have addressed the issue, like Rav Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu [who] said they are part of our people and we should help those that wish it to return. Rav Aharon Soloveitchik went even further, saying that they should be included in a minyan [prayer quorum] and given an aliya to the Torah.”
Today, however, Perry explains, “there is no single, united response to the issue of Anusim. Instead what we find is a large lack of awareness as there are no cases [of mass forced conversions happening] today, when previously it was a necessity to explore.”
Nevertheless, Perry is hoping that will change as awareness spreads, and that Reconectar will be highly instrumental in the process.
‘THIS SHOULD become the challenge for Israel and the Jewish people in the 21st century. And I believe it will be,” he says.
Apart from undoing a historical wrong, and the moral element, it could potentially have so many positive ramifications for Israel and the Jewish world in terms of demographics, aliya, fighting BDS, Jewish-Latino relations, trade, tourism and reinvigorating dying Jewish communities.
Perry explains that there is a sympathy in these people and communities towards Israel and the Jews which must not be overlooked, and they can become a great ally in our global Jewish challenges.
“We [at Reconectar] have the support of many leading political, diplomatic, academic and rabbinic figures, and also Jewish communities and organizations.
We are [in the process of ] working with all the experts, leaders and stakeholders, to see what the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora can and should do. When people listen and begin to understand the potential they are almost unanimously supportive.”
Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Dore Gold said he hoped that “Jewish organizations, leaders, communities and individuals will join this great effort in order to reconnect our people and rectify a great injustice that kept us apart for far too long.”
Among Reconectar’s many supporters are Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, President Reuven Rivlin, former president Shimon Peres and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Aryeh Stern.
Perry, who was involved (among other projects) in putting the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries on the political and international agenda, considers reconnecting with the Anusim, on whatever level of Jewish awareness they wish to reach, “a massive undertaking, perhaps one of the greatest in the history of the Jewish people.”
HE HAS so far had a hefty career in government (2009- 2015), including positions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and with the deputy prime minister (as well as the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Tourism, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water, Agriculture, Public Security and Immigrant Absorption ministries; and with the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee).
Looking for a new challenge, he came across research indicating that tens of millions of the descendants of the forced converts – the Bnei Anusim – were alive and well in North and Latin America and Europe.
“Some people had started witnessing the phenomenon in Latin America,” he says. “Jews traveling to these countries would be approached by people telling them: ‘We are Jews as well.’ It kept happening. When I heard about the research and the possibilities of reconnecting, I understood the moral necessity to do so. So I started to look into the issue further.”
Riding on the wave of seven years of research conducted by experts in the field, and already president of Reconectar, last October Perry was overwhelmed by the evidence generated by the Knesset Caucus.
“Initially we were expecting 30 or 40 participants at our opening event at the Knesset,” he says, “ Amazingly, over 350 people came, many from abroad on their own steam, spending their own money. Senior politicians, foreign ambassadors, businessmen, rabbis, Jewish organizational leaders, academics and especially Anusim.”
Jewish history, he points out, “is rife with massacres and pogroms, with the extinguishing of the Jewish flame, and here we have millions of people separated from the Jewish world, who are seeking to reconnect.”
Because there is a lack of awareness about Anusim in the broader Jewish context, “they are creating their own communities on and off line,” Perry explains.
“There are community centers, federations and synagogues created in parallel to the formal Jewish community. This is absurd, we are one people.”
There are large numbers of people (estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of millions) seeking to reconnect with the Jewish mainstream. Yet there is still a lack of awareness and response, which the caucus and several experts and academics have been doing their best to fill on individual and group levels. Perry considers it essential to work with all of them. He feels that a joint effort by all of the Jewish people can help bring awareness of and solutions to the situation of Anusim.
“These are our people, our brothers and sisters. This poses a challenge to the Jewish people. We hope to be able to step up and pick up the gauntlet.”
One of the things that impressed Perry was the way in which the Spanish and Portuguese governments “had opened their arms” to the descendants of those whom they had expelled over 500 years ago. “I thought about how much more should the people from whom they were ripped be correcting this historic wrong.”
Since the Internet is the tool of the 21st century, this is where Perry is gathering Anusim – as well as entire communities – looking to reconnect.
“There are a lot of different ways that people can reconnect. The meaning of the name of our organization, Reconectar (reconnecting) is very broad. Purposely so, because it is not up to me to decide what level of reconnection a person wants. Reconectar offers people anything from finding out more about their ancestors to reconnecting with Jews, and even eventually living as Jews, if that is what they want. Everything is guided by the wants and desires of the individual, not by us.”
Reconectar offers “a technologically-individualized response in a very direct yet discreet way through Reconectar, because it is primarily an online presence,” he says.
More often than not, Anusim or those who suspect they might be Bnei Anusim are wary and even fearful, having lived, consciously or unconsciously as Crypto- Jews for centuries, some only discovering their identity at the foot of a grandmother’s bed minutes before her death, or through learning the origins of their familial customs. Many of these people have found each other, and created virtual and online communities.
RECONECTAR reaches out to two diverse populations, inviting them to come aboard. On the one hand, “the normative or mainstream Jewish community, and on the other, the Anusim. The idea is to connect one with the other.”
The former will be the ones to assist with the reconnecting, whether it is a contact with a local Jewish community, assistance at celebrations such as Friday nights or cultural events, or just to meet Jews. “We want Jews who can help in person and online.”
The Reconectar website works on an automated system, like a dating site, because even though at the moment the numbers are still manageable, Perry foresees that soon the first stage of the reconnection will be way beyond the scope of human response from the organization. Currently, both the website at www.Reconectar.co and the Facebook pages can be accessed in three languages: English, Spanish and Portuguese.
“We already have an individualized response. People tell us about their geographic location, background, family history, customs and most important what it is they want. People can join it both to get assistance and to give it,” Perry says.
The details requested from users include name, birthplace, residence and “how do you self identify?” as well as the family’s surnames going back three generations at least. For those whose families kept certain unusual customs, details of these are requested. The person is asked what his or her interest in this issue is and what kind of information or assistance they wish to receive.
“Recognition of the Jewish origins among these populations is growing every day due to advances in genealogical studies and DNA testing, as well as simple Google searches. Once the information is received, Reconectar is able to match people up with on and offline help, information, resources, basically whatever assistance they want. There is no coercion. A person may just want some more information on their ancestry; another may be interested in the way to a formal return to the Jewish community – and many other options in between.”
Reconectar plans to offer a wide range of Jewish resources, as well as the translation and transliteration of prayers in Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Another idea, Perry says, “is a Birthright-type program for Anusim, which would be of a slightly longer duration and more geared towards Sephardi interests, history and so on.
“The sky is the limit because we already know that there is a population who self-identify as Jews and want to reconnect with their people, equal in size, if not larger, than the formal Jewish world. As President Rivlin wrote to Reconectar: ‘We dare not forget them’.” Anyone interested in getting involved with Reconectar, from personal help to donations, can connect to the website at reconectar.co or email [email protected]