B'nei Anusim Center for Education

Bringing Together and Educating Descendants of Sephardic Conversos

Crypto-Jewish Outreach

The various individuals who have returned to  Judaism have not been without the support of an eclectic group of rabbis. While most American rabbis are often unfamiliar with the Crypto-Jewish aspects of Sephardic history, a handful of rabbis has become actively involved in helping the descendants of Conversos return to Judaism.

Rabbi Joshua Stampfer is one of these key rabbis. He helped create the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies and the Association of Crypto-Jews. Rabbi Stampfer was also involved with supporting Joseph (Yosef) Garcia, a descendant of Conversos, and now a rabbi focused on Crypto-Jewish outreach. Raised in Panama as a Catholic, Rabbi Yosef Garcia was 32 years old when he learned of his Jewish background. Garcia had even been an altar boy.  Garcia’s great uncle related the family history. Garcia did not know anyone who was Jewish and was ignorant of Judaism.  After a long process of study, Garcia embraced Judaism and established a small synagogue of other individuals with Crypto-Jewish backgrounds. Garcia later recalled his grandmother lighting candles every Friday night and singing songs in a language he believed to have been Hebrew.”[1] His work was recognized by Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Shalomi granted Garcia smicha and through the former’s endorsement, Garcia joined the rabbinical council of Phoenix. Despite accusations that Garcia was once a messianic Jew, Stampfer and Shalomi stood firm in the support for him.   In 2004, Garcia co-founded the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas whose focus is on helping Crypto Jews return to Judaism.  Rabbi Garcia in cooperation with Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen and Rabbi David Rosenberg hold a ceremony of return. They stress this process as being an alternative to conversion, though they require some components that are typically connected with conversions.[2]

Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso headed by Rabbi Stephen Leon also reaches out to Hispanics from Crypto-Jewish backgrounds.  Rabbi Leon moved to El Paso from New Jersey in 1986.  He quickly received visits and calls from people who claimed Jewish ancestry or practices.[3] Rabbi Leon has converted approximately two hundred individuals from Crypto-Jewish backgrounds. Leon views these people as returning but uses conversion to improve their chances for aliyah. Adding to the excitement as well as controversy are Rabbi Leon’s estimates that 10 to 15 percent of the Hispanic community in El Paso- Ciudad Juarez have Jewish ancestors and do not know it. Rabbi Leon has related that, “American Jews have helped Jews from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and Syria, and it’s time to help our internal ‘hidden’ Jews.” In 2009, the Conservative Jewish movement adopted his resolution to welcome the descendants of anusim. They also voted to honor the anguish of Spanish Jews under the Inquisition as part of Tisha B’Av observances.[4]

In August 2014, Rabbi Leon opened the Anusim Center in El Paso at the site of the former Holocaust Museum. While the center is partly a museum, its principal purpose is to assist descendants of Conversos in returning to Judaism. The center features information on the Inquisition, provides an environment to hear the stories of Crypto-Jews and helps individuals interested in converting. Rabbi Leon’s contrasts his center with the Center for Hispanic-Jewish Relations at Texas A&M, directed by Reform Rabbi Peter Tarlow. Rabbi Tarlow also has conducted outreach to descendants of Crypto-Jews in South America and hosts a yearly Crypto-Jewish symposium at Texas A&M. While the latter is focused on historical information, Leon’s center includes outreach to crypto-Jews and counseling. Perhaps the most contentious aspect of Rabbi Leon’s vision is his view that the descendants of anusim could form a counterweight to the non-Jewish demographic problems in the state of Israel.

In Mexico, Crypto-Jewish outreach was primarily undertaken by Conservative Rabbi Samuel Lerer, who passed away in 2004. Rabbi Lerer devoted years to helping Mexicans who believed they were descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews. He undertook this mission despite an established Mexican Jewish community that is largely insular and rejects conversion. Lerer claimed to have converted as many as 3,000 people. Most of them were from Veracruz, Venta Prieta, and Puebla. Approximately 500 of them have moved to Israel.

When Lerer arrived in Mexico, he learned about Mexicans who claimed Jewish ancestry. Lerer met with Catholics who had family customs they were not able to explain. Rabbi Lerer was eventually invited to Veracruz to give a presentation on Judaism. This presentation led to weekly classes. Rabbi Lerer converted the first group of people from Veracruz a few years later. He visited regularly and continued to teach and perform conversions, weddings, and other services. The Mexican Jewish community was not enthusiastic about Rabbi Lerer’s work. It was quick to deny any linkage between these individuals and the original Conversos who settled in Mexico. “From a historical perspective, there is not a relation between these people and the Jews who came to Mexico with Cortes,” Mauricio Lulka, the Executive Director of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community noted.[5] Following Rabbi Lerer’s death, the community in Vera Cruz dissolved.

Conservative Rabbi David Kunin has argued that the requirements set by many rabbis for the descendants of Conversos are ironic. The demand for the descendants of Conversos to provide ketubot or other documents to prove their Jewish identity is almost impossible. For Rabbi Kunin, since Conversos maintained their identity orally and by custom, to require such records is effectively a punishment since any written material was in the hands of the oppressors.  To resolve this, Rabbi Kunin proposed that education be the determining factor for accepting the descendants of Conversos back into the Jewish community. Extensive genealogical investigation should not be undertaken. Males should undergo circumcision or hatafat dam brit, but Kunin argues that conversion should not be required.[6]

Perhaps the most controversial support regarding anusim was extended by the late Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik of the Brisk Yeshiva. In 1994, Rabbi Soloveitchik signed an ambiguous letter through the efforts of Schulamit Halevy that simultaneously confirmed the Jewish status of the descendants of anusim while requiring their conversion for full standing.  Rabbi Soloveitchik opined that the male descendants of anusim should be counted in a minyan and given aliyot for the Torah. If they wished to marry a Jewess, however, they were to convert by undergoing circumcision or hatafat dam brit and immersion (without the blessing). As amazing as such a statement was in extending acknowledgment of Crypto-Jews, its convoluted nature only added another layer of complexity as to how the descendants of anusim should be treated. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position was in contrast to the view of Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, a former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel. In 1994, Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu stressed that the descendants of anusim should be welcomed with kindness. A certificate of return should be provided to anusim after completing the same requirements for conversion because of the length of time that had passed since the initial conversions. [7]

The Israeli organization most widely known for its efforts to reach out to “lost Jews” is Shavei Israel. Its founder, Michael Freund sees the growing interest and return of the descendants of Conversos as a positive development in strengthening support for Israel. [8] While helping the descendants of Conversos, the organization has also focused on various groups such as the descendants of Jews in China, the Bnei Menashe of India, and others.[9] Rabbi Avraham Amitai of Shavei Yisrael was sent to Recife. He serves as Recife’s rabbi. Rabbi Avraham Amitai contends that he accepts a person who can prove that he or she has Jewish roots for several generations as a descendent of the Jewish people. Consequently, his goal is to bring them back without a full conversion.[10] Orthodox Rabbi Manny Viñas is from a Cuban background and is a descendant of Conversos. Viñas moved to Miami where his family returned to Judaism. Viñas now focuses his efforts on reaching out to Jews of color, not only those who are descendants of Conversos.

On the more progressive spectrum of Judaism, there are individuals like Rabbi Henry Sobel. Sobel was born in Portugal but was raised in the United States. He served as a rabbi in Brazil until 2007. For years, he received multiple inquiries from people who believed that they were descended from Conversos and were interested in returning to Judaism. If they did have documents, Rabbi Sobel performed a ceremony of return. In other cases, he considered each situation. He then decided whether a ceremony of return or conversions were appropriate.[11] Rabbi Cukierkorn, who was raised in Sao Paulo, has also been instrumental in the return of many crypto-Jewish descendants to Judaism. The latter has been particularly active in distance conversions. In the United States, the Conservative Rabbi Juan Mejia originally from Colombia and from a Crypto-Jewish backgrounds has reached out to Crypto-Jews though his principal focus has been directed toward the established Jewish community. Rabbi Manuel Armon, an Argentinian, became the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Tov in Florida in 1998. He notes that many Latin American families have joined the synagogue since his tenure. Most of them claim to be the descendants of anusim. They were drawn to the ongoing conversion classes offered through the synagogue.[12]  Rabbi Jules Harlow has also been active in Portugal. As part of the Masorti movement, Rabbi Harlow has reached out to the descendants of Anusim. He leads Kehilah Beit Israel where the descendants of Anusim make up a substantial portion of his community.[13]

[1] Stuart Thornton, “Hidden History: Rabbi Explains the Identity of the Crypto-Jews,” accessed on March 25, 2015,

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/hidden-history/

[2] According to the Association of Crypto Jews, the return process requires that the applicant have attended a synagogue, where available, at least 3 out of 4 Sabbaths a month.  The applicant must not work or spend money on the Sabbath. Participation is required for all major holidays. 10% of their monthly income must be given to the sons of Levi. The applicant must participate in ongoing Torah, Kashrut, and Jewish History classes. A male must be circumcised or undergo Hatafat Dam Brit if they circumcision. They must also undergo the mikveh and give unspecified financial offerings.  Their knowledge of Judaism is reviewed by the Bet Din and they must give reasons why they believe they are of Jewish descent. “Ceremony of Return,” Association of Crypto-Jews, accessed April 7, 2015, http://www.cryptojew.org/about_us.html

[3] Paul Foer and Chananette Pascal Cohen, “For Hispanic ‘Crypto-Jews,’ lawsuits may follow religious rediscovery,” JNS October 2012, accessed March 25, 2015, http://www.jns.org/latest-articles/2012/10/29/for-hispanic-crypto-jews-lawsuits-may-follow-religious-redis.html#.VRLt_vzF-Sp

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Obituary Samuel Lerer, an American Rabbi Who Converted Mexicans, Dies at 89,” February 9, 2004, accessed March 25, 2015, http://www.jta.org/2004/02/09/archive/obituary-samuel-lerer-an-american-rabbi-who-converted-mexicans-dies-at-89

[6] David A Kunin, “Welcoming Back the Anusim: A Halakhic Teshuvah” 2009.

[7] Rabbi Simcha Green of Yeshiva University has worked with the descendants of Conversos wishing to return to Judaism. He estimates that only 10 percent of those who discover their background decide to embrace Judaism. Whether this is based on the reception they receive or the requirements they are made to undergo is unclear. Rabbi Green sees the return of the descendants of Conversos as something positive. Simcha Green, “Welcoming Anusim Back into the Family,” December 8th, 2010, accessed on March 25, 2015, http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/welcoming-anusim-back-into-the-family/2010/12/08/0/?print

[8] Cnaan Lipshiz, “Secret No More,” Shavei Israel November 09, 2009, accessed on March 25, 2015, http://www.shavei.org/communities/bnei_anousim/articles-bnei_anousim/secret-no-more/?lang=en

[9] Name Your Roots was formed in Israel by a group of academics who hope to help facilitate research into Converso family names and customs.  Ronit Treatman, “Queen Esther: Patron Saint,” The Times of Israel, March 16, 2014, accessed on April 2, 2015, http://www.timesofisrael.com/queen-esther-patron-saint-of-crypto-jews/

[10] Avner Hopstein, “The Crypto-Jews of Brazil,” Y Net News October 06, 2006, accessed on March 31, 2015, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3319972,00.html

[11] Arthur Benveniste, “Finding Our Lost Brothers and Sisters: The Crypto Jews of Brazil,” Western States Jewish History 1997 Volume XXiX No. 3 http://home.earthlink.net/~benven/cryptoJewsofBrazil.htm

[12] Alexandra Alter, “‘Secret Jews’ of the Spanish Inquisition” August 06, 2005, Accessed March 30, 2015, http://newsgroups.derkeiler.com/Archive/Soc/soc.culture.cuba/2005-08/msg00977.html

[13] “Portugal, ” Jewish Virtual Library, accessed on July 28, 2015, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Portugal.html


Posted by Rabbi Juan Bejarano-Gutierrez the director of the B’nei Anusim Center for Education and the author of What is Kosher? and Who is a Jew?

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