(photo credit: ezra l'anousim)
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Yaffah Batya da Costa first visited Israel in 1992 on a Holyland tour. Although an agnostic and lapsed Catholic at the time, she had a strong desire to see the land of the Bible. But the visit turned out to be more than just a Holyland tour. It had a dramatic impact on Yaffah and marked a turning point in her life.
"I got whacked!" says Yaffah with vigor. "As soon as my feet hit the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, I began to weep and had no idea why."
Yaffah grew up in a Catholic family in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Her great-grandmother on her mother's side, Marta, had immigrated to America from the Azores islands off the coast of Portugal in 1915.
Neither Marta nor Yaffah's grandmother were church-goers but the generations born in America began to go to church. Thus it was that Yaffah and her siblings attended church and Sunday school although not by choice. From the age of seven, Yaffah felt uncomfortable with the priest's portrayal of Jews as "Christ killers" and at the age of 18 she left the church, never to go back.
Yaffah studied philosophy and computer programming and while building a successful career, first as a software engineering manager, then as head of her own business consulting company, with a client list that included General Motors and Ford, she began to read the Bible.
Her interest in the Bible and in Judaism led to that first cataclysmic trip to Israel and to many subsequent trips.
"I returned to Israel the following year at Pesah, then at Succot, then at Shavuot and realized I was doing the three pilgrimages to Jerusalem."
In 1994, Yaffah began to study the Humash with a group of lapsed Christian friends and launched a radio show called Shalom Y'all in order to combat anti-Semitism.
In 1996, she moved to Texas and while on a visit to Israel, this time on Tisha Be'av, Yaffah discovered the reason for her deep, hitherto unexplained, attachment to Israel.
"For the first time, through Mordechai Arbell of the World Jewish Congress, I heard the story of the Anusim who had been forced to convert to Christianity and learned that, in all probability, I was a descendant of Portuguese Anusim on my mother's side."
Once back in the US, Yaffah began searching for her Jewish roots. She discovered that her great grandmother was called "Judio" in Portuguese and that the family had many traditions that were clearly of Jewish origin.
"I learned that the women in my family soaked meat in salt brine to purge it of blood, if a speck of blood was found in an egg, the egg had to be discarded, cleaning was always done on a Friday, and no music or TV was allowed during periods of mourning. My mother did not know why she did these things... she simply said it was a family tradition." Spurred by her discoveries, Yaffah began to study Torah with Orthodox rabbis and to observe Shabbat.
The climax of her studies and spiritual journey took place in New York when Yaffah underwent a "return ceremony" under the auspices of an Orthodox Beit Din and was declared a returnee to Judaism in accordance with Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu's halachic response on the subject.
"A return ceremony" explains Yaffah, "must not be confused with a conversion. The studies and commitment to Judaism required of the candidate are the same, as are circumcision and immersion, but in a return ceremony, there is no blessing of the convert and during the study period, a returnee is not required to violate the Shabbat on purpose as are converts."
Yaffah believes that she was one of the first immigrants to come to Israel on a return certificate.
Yaffah made aliya in the summer of 2004 with Nefesh B'Nefesh. She had no idea where she would settle but she knew what she wanted to do.
"I came to Israel with one mission in mind to help the Anusim."
Within six months of her arrival, Yaffah had founded and got off the ground Ezra L'Anusim, an organization devoted to helping Anusim return to Judaism.
"We provide counseling and coaching by eminent rabbis, educational materials and support. We have directors in North and South America who can guide and refer Anusim to the right addresses and we have an educational Web site.
"The Anusim should not feel that no one cares or that no one will teach them. Things have changed. There is now a network out there ready to help."
In addition to directing the organization, Yaffah travels extensively giving lectures on the Anusim, runs her own business consulting practice and is a Torah-based life coach for women, particular trauma victims.
After living in the center of Jerusalem, a chance meeting led Yaffah to a two-bedroom apartment with a garden in Ma'aleh Adumim.
"I love the quiet and beauty of Ma'aleh Adumim," she says.
Yaffah's three-year old Pomeranian dog, Motzi, particularly enjoys a wild romp around the garden.
"Motzi wakes me up at 7:30. I take him out, then I pray, have coffee and get on the computer for my consulting business. After that, I make calls for the organization or do life coaching over the phone or on the Internet. From 3:30 to 11:30 p.m., I work as a consultant for a company in Jerusalem, return to Ma'aleh Adumim at midnight and work till 2 a.m. on e-mail correspondence.
Yaffah's circle is mainly Anglo, and is comprised of "anyone who is involved with the Anusim: my board of directors, people who are interested in my work, people who call me for advice."
"My Hebrew is still poor but I get around because most people speak English. I plan to start ulpan soon as I want to be able to give lectures also in Hebrew."
"I have a strong faith in Hashem and am an observant Jew. I believe that the return of the Anusim to the fold of Judaism and to the land of our ancestors is probably the last and most difficult part of the ingathering of our people."
"I identify myself as a Sephardi Israeli. I am also an American professional businesswoman in the way I work, in my standards and my ethics. I like the informality of Israeli culture, but I have trouble with people's concept of time!"
"I don't require a lot and have enough to pay my bills. I came to Israel out of ideology and I knew it would involve sacrifices. If I deprive myself, it's because I am a woman with a mission."
"I want to finish setting up Ezra L'Anusim in the Diaspora. I need more regional directors and more rabbis on the board and I would like to establish a kollel for Anusim in the US. On a personal level, I want to see my business grow and perhaps settle in the Negev. As the prophet Ovadiah said: "The captivity of Jerusalem, which is in Sepharad, will inhabit the cities of the Negev."
Send your comments >>
Sarah Granatowicz, Toronto, Canada: I loved to read about Yaffa Bathya Da Costa.I'm a Brazilian Jew now living in Canada. I admire her courage and I think she knows that in Brazil we have a lot of "New Christians" that was the name given to all Jews who had changed their names and religion after Inquisition. We still have a lot of missing Jews in this world like Yaffah!
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