On October 13th, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs held the first ever official Knesset Caucus for Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities. Attended by 300 representatives from all over the world, the caucus gathered senior political, diplomatic, academic, religious and Jewish organizational leaders to discuss how Israel and world Jewry can reconnect with the millions Crypto-Jews, also known as Bnei Anousim, Marranos and Conversos.
Should the initiative prove successful in correcting a historic wrong perpetrated against Iberian Jews, it has the potential to change the face of Judaism forever, strengthening the Jewish people spiritually and demographically.
Ashley Perry (original family name Perez) is descended from Portuguese ancestors who fled to Amsterdam before the Spanish Inquisition. Today, he is president of Reconectar, an organization facilitating a reconnection with the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities.
“This building, the Knesset, and the reestablished State of Israel remind us that the Jewish People are indeed the ‘eternal nation’ and we never let historical circumstances prevent us from achieving the seemingly impossible,” Perry told Breaking Israel News.
He advocates reassessing the Israeli Law of Return and perhaps patterning it after the recent changes in Spanish and Portuguese law, which extends citizenship to people who can prove descent from Jews who were expelled during the Inquisition.
“Many rabbis and communities are turning our brothers away. In order to really undo this historic injustice, they don’t need to return to the Iberian Peninsula. These people need to return to the Jewish people,” Perry explained to Breaking Israel News.
He proposes that those who can prove a Jewish heritage should be able to make aliyah (immigration to Israel) under the Law of Return, a subject that is the focus of controversy within the rabbinic courts.
“Until the 18th century, Jewish law ruled that Bnei Anousim could rejoin the Jewish community without any ceremony,” Perry points out, quoting modern rabbinic sources. “Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik ruled that they must be counted in a minyan (a quorum of ten Jews), but for the purposes of marriage, they need to go to a mikveh (ritual bath ) and receive upon themselves the obligation of performing mitzvoth.”
He also explained that the purpose of the initiative is to connect with all of those who have a historic connection with Israel. This does not always mean aliyah or conversion.
“Our job is to reconnecting. When a person approaches me, I ask two questions: Do you want to reconnect, and on what level do you want to reconnect? Each person has a unique story and individual expectations about what they want to do about their ancestral connection to the Jewish people,” Perry explained.
Perry is optimistic that technology and the viral spread of information via the internet will help the effort in many ways, including allowing people with specific family histories to seek solutions that are tailored to their interests and needs.
“People approach us wanting to know about their heritage, tourism, up to wanting to convert, or return, and make aliyah,” he told Breaking Israel News. “We don’t missionize. We want to remove the stumbling blocks and reconnect with these people who were connected to the nation of Israel in the past.”
Modern technology and developments in the medical field have also helped Bnei Anousim connect with their Jewish roots. DNA testing can reveal historical genetic connections with the Jewish people, such as the well-known Cohen gene, checked through haplotype patrilineal tests, or mitochondrial DNA testing (mtDNA test), which can trace a person’s matrilineal ancestry. DNA testing is used as corroborative proof of Jewish descent.
Perry described the urgency of his mission in his address to the Knesset. “Although we cannot reverse the suffering endured under the Inquisition, or bring back those murdered by it, we can begin to free those still psychologically imprisoned by it because of the centuries of oppression felt by their ancestors,” he said. “This is our mission and our goal.”
Yaffah Batya daCosta-Sacks was born and raised in New Bedford, MA to a nominally Catholic family that came to America from the Azores around 1915. In 1995, she found out that she might have Jewish ancestry and in 2000, she was accepted by an Orthodox Beit Din in New York as a returnee from among the Bnei Anousim. Since then, Yaffah has become an activist on behalf of the Bnei Anousim community. She sees her mission as restoring her people to the nation of Israel, fixing something that was broken. Today, Yaffah is religiously observant and lives in Jerusalem.
After pointing out that presently only a trickle from the ocean of people who have a genealogical connection with Israel are returning, Yaffah proposes very personal reasons why this is so.
“The community is not as accepting as they should be. Despite our historic connection, they view us as outsiders and with suspicion. There needs to be a major effort to educate the Jewish community,” she told Breaking Israel News.
Yaffah explained that there is too much emphasis placed on converting the Bnei Anousim by Orthodox rabbis instead of a return ceremony, as ruled by Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel. She notes that many who would potentially reconnect are discouraged by the emphasis on conversion and the absence of other options. In her experience, many well-intentioned rabbis prefer conversion, feeling that it will help the Bnei Anousim be fully accepted into the Jewish community, however it is a hurtful approach.
“It denies our Jewish ancestry, a part of our identity and tradition. The church forced us to convert in the Inquisition, and now many rabbis are forcing us to convert,” she told Breaking Israel News. “It does not return to us what was taken away. This year 5776 is a year of Jubilee. Biblically captives and slaves were set free. The Bnei Anousim have been kept captive in a culture not of their choosing for 500 years. Let’s hope that this is the year our people are set free.”