05 August 2008

Returning: Hidden Jews

The phenomenon of the B'nai Anousim - people of Spanish descent who are returning to Judaism after their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition - was seen this weekend at Rabbi Stephen Leon's B'nai Zion Congregation in El Paso, Texas.

The fifth annual Sephardic Anousim Conference is important as it helps hidden Jews to reconnect with Judaism in an authentic Jewish setting.

Unfortunately, I missed attending due to a scheduling conflict, but the El Paso Times provided this story.
Sonya Loya was raised Catholic, but in practicing her faith, she often felt that "things weren't quite right."

Five years ago, the New Mexico resident went to her parents to ask for their blessing in researching her heritage.

"My father surprised me by saying, 'I knew I was Jewish since I was 6 years old,' " she said.

Loya's family is representative of the phenomenon of Beni Anousim, people of Spanish descent who return to Judaism after their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.
Loya, a glass artist in Ruidoso, studied with Rabbi Leon and spoke about her mikveh immersion:

"I can't even describe it; it was a connection I had never felt to God. I finally felt like I belonged, that I was home," she said.
She runs the low-key Bat-Tziyon Hebrew Learning Center adjacent to her studio.

"I can't tell you how many hundreds of people have come through and how many have ended up having conversations with Rabbi Leon because they felt the very same thing," she said.
Leon suspects that 10-15% of the Hispanic population in El Paso and Juarez has Jewish roots. In 1989, he learned about crypto-Jews as he began hearing questions from Christians who were really following Jewish traditions. In his previous northeast US experience, Leon had never encountered this.

Leon has helped more than 30 families return to Judaism and says that people who go through this experience are the most passionate about it. He adds that although some people who are born Jewish take Judaism for granted, these people do not.

There is much research and numerous books have been written on crypto-Jews which provide answers to people who suspect their Jewish roots.

One conference speaker, journalist, author and Jewish history lecturer Andree Aelion Brooks of New York comments in the story:
"But interest is rising because of communication today. The Internet allows people to access their genealogy, and people are busy chasing their ancestral roots the way they never did before," she said.
The program, including traditional daily services and kosher meals, included the following speakers: Orthodox rabbi and scribe Nissan Ben-Avraham; Andrée Aelion Brooks, author of "The Woman Who Defied Kings, The Life and Time of Dona Gracia Nasi," Moshe Otero, Rabbinic student and former Christian minister; international scholar and musician Vanessa Paloma on Sephardic music and traditions from Morocco and a Sephardic concert; and Kulanu past president Jack Zeller, "Bringing back the lost tribes of Israel;" panel discussion.

I am proud to count as friends several Anousim families - still in hiding after centuries - but who are well aware of their roots and history. They are very circumspect about their traditions and do not speak openly. After centuries of hiding, even they are noticing this new wave of revealing previously hidden roots among their compatriots. Among those families are a few who are in the process of openly rejoining Judaism.

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