Would the real Jewish people please stand up?

Who’s that knocking at our door?

HANNAH CRADLES the necklace that led to the discovery of her Jewish roots. (Photos: Courtesy) (photo credit: Courtesy)
HANNAH CRADLES the necklace that led to the discovery of her Jewish roots. (Photos: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The necklace with the Star of David had been in the family for generations, but only when she told her mother about her relationship with an Israeli whom she happened to meet in India did Hannah Eyal discover it existed. That discovery would lead to several more. Now, seven years later, Hannah, raised as a Catholic in her native Portugal, is living in Israel, having converted to Judaism after learning she was a descendant of Conversos (Marranos), and is happily married to the man who, through a chance meeting, set in motion a journey that would bring her back to her ancient roots.
While to date few of the progeny of those Jews who converted to Christianity under duress 500 years ago have ended up here, there are many more knocking at our door, waking us up to the potential of establishing ties with this population, far more numerous than most would imagine.
The Diaspora Ministry recently published a report concluding that there are some 35,000,000 descendants of Conversos around the world who are fully aware of their Jewish roots with an affinity to the Jewish people. Of these, 350,000 are already connected to one another through a variety of social networks. Thousands are already living as practicing Jews – many having formally converted – and have organized themselves in fully functioning communities with synagogues, schools, mikvahs and community centers. Now the Jewish state is being challenged by their requests for recognition as being part of the Jewish people. Dozens of requests for aliyah have already been submitted by converts with Jewish roots that Israel’s Ministry of the Interior is not even prepared to consider, having yet to formulate a policy in regard to these emerging communities and several others whose origins are not related to Conversos – a situation that the Jewish Agency, charged with processing all aliyah applications, is actively endeavoring to resolve.
The phenomenon in any case raises fascinating and perplexing questions for all of us, not only as to who is a Jew, but also whether being Jewish is a matter of race, ethnicity, or religion – and whether there is the potential, and whether there is the will to exponentially grow the number of Jews in the world from 14,000,000 to several times that figure. Hannah, in any case, has done her share. She and her husband Shay have brought two daughters to the world who will inherit one very special necklace.
The writer is the deputy chair of the Jewish Agency Executive and actively engaged in exploring the phenomenon of emerging Jewish communities. The Jewish Agency is the ongoing story of Israel and the Jewish people. “Family Matters” tells that as it is, one chapter at a time.