Sep 30, 2022
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A Knesset-appointed committee has recommended a “game-changing” new status for non-Jews with Jewish roots that could allow them to reconnect with Israel and the Jewish people after thousands of years of exile. After the Jewish holidays this month, an initial report, detailing the Ministry of Diaspora’s response, is expected to be released.

According to Ashley Perry (Perez), who was invited to speak before the committee on this topic, this is a “potentially game-changing moment for the Jewish people at the beginning of the 21st century that could rectify a historical injustice and have so many practical positive ramifications of Jewish people and state of Israel.”

Perry is the president of Reconectar, an organization that helps descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities (known as Bnei Anousim, Marranos, and Conversos) reconnect with the Jewish world and Israel. He recommended to the committee that the government allow these visitors to stay in Israel for longer than the three months issued by a tourist visa, as well as send messages of welcome.

He told Breaking Israel News, “It is my firm belief that this is a crucial moment in development of relations between two significant, disconnected communities. One is the formative Jewish world and the other are the descendants of forcibly converted Spanish and Portuguese communities that would like to, in some way, reconnect with the Jewish world – which number at least around the same number of Jews in the world. Meaning that the Jewish world population could double.”

Michael Freund with Bnei Menashe children at the Ben Gurion Airport. (Courtesy Michael Freund)

Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, also testified on the committee and similarly advocates for connecting descendants of Jews with the Jewish people. He founded Shavei Israel, which helps non-Jewish people with Jewish descent make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), after receiving a letter from Northeastern India in 1997 while working as the Deputy Communications Director for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The letter included an emotional appeal from a community in India, known as the Bnei Menashe, that claims descent from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel.

“They were asking to be allowed to return to the land of their ancestors, the land of Israel, after 2,700 years of exile,” Freund told Breaking Israel News.

“Initially, I thought it was nuts. But it was something very heartfelt and there was something sincere about the letter, so I answered it. And when I first visited Northeastern India and I learned about their history, traditions, and customs, I became convinced of the validity of their claim that they are in fact descendants of a lost tribe of Israel.”

“It is not surprising that we are finding traces or remnants of Jews in all places around the globe, because our people were scattered in exile and taken from us,” said Freund, who maintains that it is a great strategic mistake not to reach out to those who want to reconnect with their Jewish heritage.

“It turned out they had been writing to Israeli Prime Ministers since Golda Meir and probably since Ben Gurion, but they never got a reply,” he said. Freund hypothesizes that nobody reached out to them because after various traumatic exiles and experiences, the Jewish people have turned inward – but it is now time to turn outward.

Accepting the requests of non-Jews with Jewish descent to formally join the Jewish people is “solid” on halakhic (Jewish law) grounds, said Perry. “We have sources from the Rambam, from Rashi, from the Shulchan Aruch, up until Rav Soloveitchik, Rav Ovadia Yosef, Avodat Yisrael, all who say that these people are part of us, we should welcome them home, and some of them like Rav Soloveitchik who says they should be treated as full Jews in every way.”

Even more, according to Rabbi Haim Amsalem, Jewish tradition demands that Jews should not relate to Bnei Anousim and those of Jewish descent who wish to return as gentiles, but as “zera Yisrael” (seed of Israel), those who are destined to return to Judaism.

Outside of strong religious and ethical motivations for accepting those who would like to reconnect with their Jewish heritage, political considerations should also be convincing to the Israeli establishment. As such populations learn of Jewish ancestry and understand that they share historic roots with Israel and the Jewish people, they are more likely to visit Israel, increase support for Israel, do business with Israel, and join the fight against the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement. Those who formally join the Jewish people and move to Israel may also address Israel’s demographic challenges. “It’s a win-win,” says Freund. “[Israel] can use all the friends we get.”

It is for these reasons that Freund has helped thousands of Jews from around the world make aliyah and reconnect with their Jewish heritage. “We are privileged to live in an age where God is gathering his people in from the most remote parts of the earth,” he told Breaking Israel News. “It is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that those who are lost would one day return. At the end of days, Israel (the ten tribes of Israel) and Judah (Jews) will be reunited.”

Both Perry and Freund spoke of the vast opportunities for reconnection and research thanks to modern technology and the Internet. “People thought these communities were vanished over the last few centuries. They never vanished, they never disappeared, they were always there, they were leading parallel existences to the formative Jewish world and now there’s an extremely strong opportunity in the beginning of the 21st century because of these technological advances,” said Perry.

Shavei Israel’s guide for Bnei Anousim. (Courtesy Michael Freund)

Indeed, Freund’s practical guide for Bnei Anousim who are exploring their roots had more than 30,000 downloads in the first few months from Google ads that targeted people researching their Jewish roots.

Often, descendants of Jews find out about their Jewish heritage through DNA testing, study of their family genealogy, or through research of “strange family traditions” such as lighting candles on a Friday afternoon. Some of the Jews who were deported during the Holocaust and went back to Eastern Europe to find their ancestors and claim their assets stayed, hid their Jewish identity from family members because of what they experienced under Nazism and Communism, and now, their family members are learning of their Jewish identities. Some were taken against their will and others gave their children up for adoption and the Jewish orphans grew up as Polish Catholics, only to later discover their family secrets.

According to Freund, we have a religious, historical, and moral obligation to “bring them back to our people. “The easiest thing for them would have been to just give up [on their Jewish identity], but they didn’t, they persisted with great courage and passed down their Jewish identity as best they could. They have miraculously survived for more than 500 years. We now have a sovereign State of Israel, those people are clamoring to come back. If the people are knocking on our collective door and asking to be allowed back in, how can we possibly slam the door in their faces? We cannot turn a deaf ear to their pleas. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves to help them to return,” he told Breaking Israel News.

According to Perry and Freund, many political, diplomatic, academic and religious leaders from around the world are standing in solidarity and in support of this growing movement. If the Ministry of Diaspora accepts the recommendation, the proposition will then be sent to the government for the chance to be formally accepted.

Perry and Freund suggest that at that point, there will be a great need for more infrastructure and institutions, learning programs, and tools specifically tailored to the experience and traditions of those who decide to engage with Jewish community.

Freund is confident and optimistic that the report will be translated into “real chances.” “We are on the verge of a milestone in Jewish history, where for the first time the state of Israel could be putting forward a plan to engage with descendants of Jews around the world,” he told Breaking Israel News.

Although the initial recommendations do not include a path towards becoming Israeli citizens, Perry suggests that there will be great incentives and precedence in Israeli history for offering a streamlined process of citizenship for those who were forcibly converted.

“The Jewish people have showed in the 20th century that we will not allow history and circumstance to prevent us from achieving the improbable if not the impossible. This is just the next chapter in that,” he concluded.