By: Anna Rudnitsky/TPS
A piece of 21st century technology may help address a historical wrong from the 15th century whose consequences still reverberate today. Descendants of the Jews who were forcefully converted to Christianity under the Inquisition – variously called anusim, marranos, or “secret jews” – can now connect with their Jewish heritage via the new online project Reconectar, meaning “reconnect” in Spanish and Portuguese.
“Our people was divided by force more than 500 years ago, with hundreds of thousands of Jews needing either to escape or to convert. Now we can bring their descendants back to their roots,” Ashley Perry, president of the Reconectar project, told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
Himself a descendant of Jews who fled Spain under the Inquisition and eventually settled in Britain, Perry says these far-distant events have always been part of his Sephardic heritage, with his Yom Kippur prayer book containing prayers about “our brothers under the Inquisition.” Perry quit his job as advisor to Israel’s minister of foreign affairs in 2015, a position he had held for six years, to work on Reconectar.
The main component of the project is a website, now in beta version, that allows users to choose one of the two options while registering – as someone who wants to reconnect with the Jewish community or as someone who wants to help others find their roots. So far there are about a thousand registered users, a quarter of them signed up choosing the second option.
“In countries like Brazil or Mexico, where big numbers of anusim live, there are few established Jewish communities and it’s often hard to approach them. People who find out about their Jewish roots and want to know more often have no one to ask. This is where technology can help,” Perry explained.
However, the website is not the only part of the Reconectar project.
“I see it more as a movement than as an organization,” Perry told TPS. “Maybe it is not the best comparison, but if you remember the movement for freedom of Soviet Jews, it also started from grassroots initiatives and turned to include senior political figures. I would expect the same from Reconectar. I believe the issue of anusim is the greatest challenge for the people of Israel in the 21st century.”
According to Perry, the number of people with Jewish roots in Latin America approaches 100-150 million, with many of them still Jewish in the eyes of halakha, or Jewish law, due to the high rate of marriage inside the anusim communities.
About 60 percent of the people already registered on Reconectar website indicated they would like to convert to Judaism, and some 10 percent said they would like to make aliyah, or emigrate to Israel.
Both options, however, are hardly available for them so far. There are no Jewish courts in Latin America whose conversions are accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and tracing one’s family history back 500 years to prove one’s Jewish pedigree is not a piece of cake – though some have actually managed to do this.
The established halakhic ruling among Jewish legal scholars is that “secret Jews” are not quite Jews, and must pass through a conversion process just like any Gentile.
Interest in the anusim issue sparked in 2014 when the Spanish government announced a bill granting full citizenship to people with Sephardic Jewish ancestry, provided they have a last name that appears on an official list.
The question remains, however, how do you know if you are a descendant of the anusim?
One method is to look at carefully preserved traditions, such as in Latin American communities discovered in the last 30 years with oddly Jewish-seeming rituals – women lighting clandestine candles on Friday evening, cleaning the house before Easter (as Jews do before Passover), and even some elderly confessing on their deathbeds “We are Israelites.”
Yet there is a controversy among scholars about the origins of these practices. Some argue that people in these communities may actually be descendants of Protestant missionaries and not of the Spanish Jews.
Perhaps the online tools now provided by Reconectar will help many discover – and authenticate – their secret Jewish roots.