Painting by Daniel Kabakoff
So many anusim, or lost Jews in Latin America are trying to return to their Jewish roots, but it’s really not easy.
Around four years ago, I got an email from someone who’d been Google translating some of the stuff I’d been writing on the Breslev.co.il website into Spanish. She lived in Latin America, and was going through a very hard time.
After we’d been corresponding for a while, I took the plunge and asked her:
“Are you Jewish?”
It took a while for the answer to ping back to me. She had Jewish roots that went back to the anusim, the hidden Jews of Spain. She was desperate to learn more about emuna, and the authentic, orthodox Jewish approach to serving God.
But no, she was not recognized as being officially Jewish.
I kept in touch with my Spanish-speaking pen-pal over the next few years, and I was astounded when I got an email from her, around 18 months ago, when she told me she’d totally turned her life around left her soul-destroying job, and undergone a full orthodox conversion.
I was seriously impressed.
Had I known more details of what was really taking place in my penpal’s life, I would have been far more impressed. Because while her conversion was carried out 100% according to halacha; and was performed by a chareidi rabbi in Israel who lives with his family in Bnei Brak.
This rabbi used to spend a lot of time in Latin America on business, and over the years, he’d taken a great interest in trying to build up the observant community there. But there was a fly in the ointment: the local Chief Rabbinate where my friend lives wasn’t recognizing her conversion.
Back then, I was still a little naïve. I had no idea what was really going on, so I didn’t press for too many details, and I figured it was just one of those technical things that eventually get sorted out.
Then a year ago, I got another bombshell email: my penpal had met someone who’d been learning full-time in yeshiva in Israel before moving back to Latin America to find a wife. They were getting married the next month, and even though they barely had a penny to their name, she was looking forward to a much happier future.
What can I tell you?
Hashem has been giving my penpal, and the community she belongs to, a lot of tests.
Last Summer, I invited her to come and spend a week with me here, in Jerusalem, to have a bit of a break from all the tremendous stress she was under at home, and to come and get acquainted with the holy city.
She spent 10 days in my house, and we went to a whole bunch of holy places together, including the Kotel, Kever Rochel and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron. When she was too tired to keep traipsing all over the city, my friend would spend hours on end in her room with her prayer book, either reciting the three standard prayer services or quietly whispering tehillim to herself.
In the middle of a blazing August summer, her level of tznius put mine to shame.
She was wearing her bullet-proof black tights, and her high collars, and her heavy beret, when the heat was peaking at well over 40 degrees. And we talked a lot about God’s plan for us, and what it really means to have emuna, and a few other things besides.
At one point, I felt I could now broach a topic that had puzzled me right from the beginning:
Why didn’t you convert with the local Chief Rabbinate where you live right from the start, and avoid all the problems you’re having with being barred from using the communal mikva? (Not to mention all the other issues that she’d only hinted at.)
She sighed a deep sigh, and told me:
I don’t want to talk any lashon hara.
But journalist that I am, I could tell there was a good story here.
I kept nudging her until she told me that the main problem boiled down to money: potential orthodox converts were being asked for thousands of dollars in ‘donations’ to convert in her part of the world and my friend – and the community she was part of – simply didn’t have the cash required.
Since last Summer, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Senior figures in the ‘official’ Jewish community there have been persecuting my friend and her husband for months, preventing them from finding a job. The non-Jews don’t want them, because they dress, behave and believe the same way as the sorts of Jews you see walking around the frummest neighborhoods in Israel.
And sadly, the ‘official’ Jewish community in their country also doesn’t want them.
When I showed my friend this draft, ahead of posting it up here on the site, she asked me to add in the following:
“I want to add something so that people understand that it’s not just me and my immediate community of lost Jews who are being personally persecuted. There are many converts and potential converts across the whole of Latin America who are experiencing a lot of problems.
The “official communities” in a lot of these countries don’t want to deal with us, either because there is no correct, orthodox conversion procedure in place, or because we don’t have a lot of money we can ‘donate’ to join the Jewish community, persecution against us, or because they are worried that we are really just part of a xtian sect called the “Jewish messianists” (i.e. Jews for Yoshki).
Some of those messianists now also dress as Hasidic, or ’religious-looking’ Jews, and because of our background, we are suspected of being part of these sects.”
So my friend and her community have been falling through the gaps, stuck in a kind of no-mans-land where so many of them are literally struggling to put even basic food on the table, or to find the money to keep paying the rent.
They can’t move to Israel, as many of them would like to, as they aren’t formally recognized as being Jews.
The conversion committee in Israel keeps telling them to convert ‘officially’ with their local community, spend a year there, and then move to Israel. But of course, they can’t. I’ve heard rumors that the ‘donation’ new converts are being asked for is $10,000 a person – and these people can barely put food on the table.
Last month, when things hit a new low, I said to my friend:
Let’s tell your story. Let’s explain what’s happening to you and your community, in your own words. I think the Jewish world really needs to hear about your plight – but also, the remarkable courage and emuna that my friend and her community are showing in the face of some really tough circumstances.
After a little bit of persuading, she agreed.
So here is her story, in her own words.
My father was the second child of a religiously “conservative” family of lost Jews.
His parents never openly spoke to him about Judaism, and in many ways, they acted like the other Christians around them – only much less ‘Christian’.
But my grandfather always told him: “You should always love Israel, you should always know that Israel is the world’s clock”.
My father grew up in a rural area, totally detached from material things, which were not abundant in any case, as he was sharing the house with 11 brothers.
During his childhood, my father’s family had certain “Jewish” practices. For example, if an animal drowned, they wouldn’t eat it. And all the meat they ate was always slaughtered in a particular way, and the animal’s blood was covered over with earth.
They were taught to be extremely respectful to adults, and the children didn’t participate in any festival that was dedicated to a Christian idol, nor did they join in with the religious ceremonies in school, and neither did they celebrate Christmas. In my father’s childhood home, it was totally forbidden to cause harm to any animal, or to make fun of other people.
My father was very spiritual, even as a child.
From seven years old, he was already longing to know more about God, and what God really expected from him, and he often had some very powerful dreams and premonitions. Throughout his childhood, he was teased and ostracized for not being part of the regular Christian world around him.
At around this time, news started to reach Latin America about the Shoah that was engulfing the Jews of Europe, so my father’s unexpressed yearning for Judaism was pushed even further underground.
My mother’s parents divorced when she was very young, so she was raised in what appeared to be a traditional Catholic house.
But from the age of 5, she decided that she was only going to talk and pray to God, and not to any images of people. Those idols scared and repulsed her.
After she married my father, they both started to think more about the spiritual side of life, and my mother decided to ask her mother about the family. My grandmother told her that her grandparents were Jewish. Her mother had died from pneumonia when my grandmother was 8 years old, and her father had then married a Catholic woman, who raised her and her brothers. And so, all the Jewish traditions the family had were totally lost.
When my parents were in their mid-thirties, Latin America was hit by a wave of self-styled ‘Orthodox Messianic’ movements.
People who called themselves ‘rabbis’ started coming to the country, and began conducting religious services and teaching people Hebrew. These ‘rabbis’ started to appoint leaders, and to form communities, and they had the money required to start bringing Jewish books and religious items into the country .
They’d sell these items – talissim, kippas, tefillin, siddurim, and even shofars – to the locals. At that stage, my parents decided they would convert their house to being ‘kosher’, and these moves were very cautiously welcomed by the more religious Jewish communities in our country. But then, the messianic ‘rabbis’ started trying to convince the lostJews who had started to adopt more Jewish laws and halachot to accept their Christian ‘messiah’.
Many people were very confused about what was happening, but as time went on, more and more people started to realise that there was something very wrong here, and that all this ‘messianic’ propaganda didn’t fit in with the Torah, or with halacha.
At that point, before they had formally converted to Judaism, the community came across the letter that Don Isaac Abarbanel wrote to the monarchs of Spain.
The letter was written at the time of the forced conversions and expulsion of the Spanish Jews. There he wrote:
“[A]s the last spokesman of Spanish Jewry… I will leave you with a parting message although you will like it not.
“The message is simple. The historical people of Israel, as it has traditionally constituted itself, is the final judge of Jesus and his claims to be the Messiah. As the Messiah was destined to save Israel, so it must be for Israel to decide when it has been saved.
“Our answer, the only answer that matters, is that Jesus was a false Messiah.
“As long as the people of Israel lives, as long as Jesus’ own people continue to reject him, your religion can never be validated as true. You can convert all the peoples and savages of the world, but as long as you have not converted the Jew, you have proved nothing except that you can persuade the uninformed.”
Sadly, even Don Isaac Abarbanel’s own brother converted to Catholicism, and when that happened, every church in the country rang its bells in celebration. But the Abarbanel dreamed of the day when all these lost Jews would return to their faith.”
My friend continues:
“After we found that letter, many of us became much more interested in our traditions, and we started spending a lot of time at the national archives in our country, where we started to learn more about our Sephardic heritage. Throughout this time, we were very isolated. For around 18 years, we didn’t really know what to do or where to turn, and in the meantime, the formal communities around us were refusing to even sell us matzahs for Pesach.
Then one day, a friend from the formal Jewish community told us about a rabbi who was spending a lot of time in Latin America on business, and suggested that he might be willing to us more about the Jewish traditions of our heritage.
We faced obstacles every step of the way.
Even from the age of six, I had decided that I didn’t like all the stories about Yoshki that always seemed so cruel, and so full of blood and death.
Instead, I started telling people that Moses was my hero. But that didn’t go down so well in the communities we were living in, and our non-Jewish family and friends started to push us away, and to accuse us of being ‘fanatics’ and ‘murderers’.
As soon as these people discovered we were lost Jews, they’d move away from our communities very quickly. Before we started our journey to Orthodox Judaism, we’d been a wealthy family, a wealthy community. But as the years passed, our businesses started to fail, as more and more people were ostracizing us, and the money dried up.
There were weeks when we struggled even to find the money to make food for Shabbat, and this continued for years. As our community has become poorer and poorer, sometimes, there hasn’t even been money to buy food. But we don’t complain about our poverty. Most of the converts we know had to face this test, and we’ve also seen such tremendous miracles.
Yes, there are some very difficult tests.
Some of the men who couldn’t find a Jewish woman have strayed, and the main Jewish congregations in our country have been told not to give us any access to their facilities, including the communal mikva, or to offer us any type of help or tzedaka.
Yet, I’ve also seen more kindness in these communities than I’ve seen anywhere else.
I’ve seen people share their small bag of flour with a friend, so their family can also have something to eat. I’ve seen people go without sleep, and walking many kilometres just to attend a religious service. I’ve seen people spend their own time and money just to teach others, and I’ve seen women recite so many tehillim for the people in need, and people who suffer hunger all week, because they refuse to work on Shabbat, or to buy non-kosher food.
I have seen people investing literally everything they have for the common good, and making so many sacrifices to help other lost Jewish souls out of the prison of Christianity.
None of the 200-300 people I know who have undergone an orthodox conversion have had it easy.
Some people have lost everything they had, even their families, and so many of us have had to deal with being rejected by our parents, our friends, our communities, and with being gossiped about and slandered.
And things are no easier on the Jewish side of the equation, either, where we continue to be rejected, and our conversion discredited, by the ‘traditional’ Jewish population. Sometimes the tests are so hard, people fall back into their old life. But I’ve also witnessed three generations in one family convert.
When I’ve asked some of the people in my community if it was worth it, after everything they’ve gone through, the majority of them say:
“I’m a Jew, how else could I live?”
Here and there, there have been some movements, meeting and groups to create a strong Torah community in the Latin American countries, but it seems that there is not enough “Jewish glue” among the Latin American converts and the lost Jews to really make it work. Some people have tried very hard to get our communities more organized and vocal, but it never really spreads very far.
It’s not easy to deal with people who have even spent 50-60-70 years as “good Christians”, and now you come along and suddenly tell them that everything they believed in is wrong, and that they must become some other sort of people. It’s like being told that you have lived someone else’s life by mistake.
Many people simply can’t accept it.
Many of us would like to move to Israel, but the anusim like us are just a statistic to the State of Israel.
Even though some of us converted 30 years ago, already, none of us have been invited to speak to the policy makers in Israel, although I know they listen to Arabs and other non-Jews on a regular basis. Yes, there are some ‘politically correct’ initiatives, but nothing that really leads to anything concrete.
I’ve never heard of an Israeli embassy running an initiative to try to get to know the anusim that exist, still half-hidden, in the countries where they are located. The only contact we have with Israel is via the letters written by our ‘official’ rabbinate, where the conversions that cost us so many tears, and so many prayers, and so many nights of study and effort, are falsely discredited.”
Why is that happening, I wanted to know? Why so much antagonism against the lost Jews?
My friend sighed, then continued:
“As happens everywhere, there are some people, some “anusim” who have been seeing all this as some sort of a “business”, and their actions have closed the doors for the rest of us more and more. Baruch Hashem, they are a minority, and they cannot dim the light of those who really want to live a Jewish life, even when our bad middot still get in the way.”
“Today, the future does not seem so clear.
The people who have the ability and knowledge to help us move forward don’t want to. The people who could be sharing our story, and lighting our path back to teshuva and Hashem and Israel, continue to turn their backs on us. But there is still something I am sure of:
This is only the beginning.
There is a Divine force driving all this, and while there are some people, some converts, who really don’t have such good intentions, there are hundreds and thousands of us who are being carried forward by our holy, pure desire to serve Hashem and keep His mitzvoth.
These are the people who are prevented from using a mikva in their own communities; people who can’t find a Jewish school to accept their children, people who are refused places to study in yeshiva, and refused permission to settle in Eretz Yisrael.
But even so, if you lift your heads and look around, you’ll see an amazing sight: There are thousands upon thousands of humble people, simple people, who are coming back to life. There are Jewish souls who were once considered to be dead, who are being reborn. Those dry bones have been covered by muscle and tendons.
“And we are living once again, as Torah-observant Jews.”
And so, her story ended.
Or really I should say, her story began. Last year, the small group of sincere converts that my friend belongs to, these Sephardic anusim, decided to try to move several families en masse to a rural part of the country, where the cost of living is far cheaper, and where there is some potential for the community to become self-sufficient.
They didn’t have any resources, or investment. All they had was some firm trust in Hashem and a little bit of charity money that was being sent in from outside. And even that is now dwindling, as the government has recently enacted a law limiting the amount of money that can be sent to their country via money transfer to just $500 a year.
Nevertheless, my friend and her community didn’t give up. They started trying to slowly buy a few more domesticated animals, and to start making a few more basic products to sell to the tourists that come to the area. But the crushing poverty began to take a huge toll on the community, and tragedy has continued to dog their heels.
A few weeks ago, my friend told me that all the animals a certain family had spent two years carefully raising all caught some freak illness, and died overnight. Then, there is another family where the father was caught up in an awful road accident last year, and was so ill he couldn’t work for months.
Just as he got back on his feet – last week – he was run over again.
This last problem fell like a thunder-clap on this close knit community of anusim, lost Jews who are trying to hard to return, and my friend was totally distraught about what was happening, with one problem and one challenge after another.
When I first wrote this piece, a couple of months ago, my friend and her community were planning to try to start a few businesses with a little bit of investment money, with an eye to building up a real community with it’s own mikva, synagogue and school.
Today, the plans are in a state of flux.
What’s clear is that this community still needs an awful lot of help to just start being able to put food on the table, pay rent, and to build a very basic mikvah. Until these basic things are taken care of, they can’t see any further ahead on the path they need to take.
But once that’s done, there is a pressing need for the community to get organized – and for the other communities of anusim to get organized – and to start figuring out the process of how they can be allowed to convert again, if necessary, in order to be given full rights as the orthodox Jews they really are.
I’d love to tell you there’s a plan, a process to give us the happy ending to the story, but right now, there isn’t. All I can really do for my friend at the moment is pray that God will open the door for them, and pray some more that they’ll have the ability to walk through it, when the time comes.
Almost 600 years ago, Don Isaac Abarbanel told the rulers of Spain:
“Woe unto you, authors of iniquity. For generations to come, it will be told and retold how unkind was your faith and how blind was your vision. But more than your acts of hatred and fanaticism, the courage of the people of Israel will be remembered for standing up to the might of imperial Spain, clinging to the religious inheritance of our fathers, and resisting your enticements and your untruths.”
All over Latin America, there are lost Jews still desperately trying to cling on against all the odds, and to return to their Jewish faith.
And I don’t know what we can really do, or how we can really help them, but one thing I do know:
We have to try.
If you think you can help, either with a financial donation or by making some introductions and opening some doors for this particular group of ‘lost Jews’ in Latin America, please get in touch. Who knows, maybe the time has come for this to finally start moving. I hope to be writing more about this subject of the lost Jews in the next few weeks