Shavei Israel emissary joins 400th anniversary commemorations of Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands

Rabbi Salas in Amsterdam Jewish cemetery

Rabbi Salas in Amsterdam Jewish cemetery

In 1536, Portugal expanded the Inquisition that had begun in Spain into its territory, targeting Jews who had converted to Catholicism to escape persecution, but who were suspected of still secretly practicing Judaism. Many of these Anousim (crypto-Jews also known as Conversos or Marranos) had fled Spain for Portugal, and when the Inquisition caught up with them, they fled again, this time for the Netherlands where, fortunately, they were welcomed in and allowed to restart their lives. The safety they felt in Amsterdam, in particular, allowed the new Jewish communities to once again practice Judaism fully and openly.

In 1614, the first Jewish cemetery was established in Amsterdam. The cemetery celebrated the 400th anniversary of its construction in December of last year, and Rabbi Elisha Salas, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Portugal, was invited to attend the festivities.

For Rabbi Salas, who is based in Belmonte, Portugal, and works with Bnei Anousim, some of whom are only today rediscovering their roots, seeing how Anousim hundreds of years ago found the freedom to embrace their heritage was an inspiration that will help fuel his interactions with modern day Marranos.

“One might have thought that, given the overwhelming strength of the Inquisition, the Anousim who fled to Amsterdam would at least have continued to hide their Hebrew and Jewish names,” he says. “But what I saw in the cemetery in Amsterdam and among the founders of the synagogue and the Amsterdam Jewish community were not names in German, but in Portuguese!”

The weekend celebrations included prayers at the Esnoga (the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam that was founded in 1671), a visit to the Jewish Museum and the Etz Chaim library belonging to the Montezinos family.

Antonio de Montezinos was a Portuguese traveler and a Marrano himself who in 1644 persuaded Menashe ben Israel, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, that he had found one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel living in the jungles of the Ecuador. This resulted in a book The Hope of Israel, which became a bestseller in 1655.

The highlight of the weekend, of course, was a trip to the cemetery. Rabbi Salas planted an olive tree that he brought with him from the village of Alentejo in Portugal. “The olive tree is a symbol of the union between past and present, between Portugal and the Netherlands,” he explains. The olive tree has particular Jewish meaning. “It is through this tree that we extract the oil for the lamps that illuminate our Sabbath and the hanukkiah that will light up the next Festival of Lights in Belmonte…and the world.”

At the end of the visit, the Sephardic Choir of Amsterdam regaled the group with songs that recalled the long history of Jews in both Portugal and the Netherlands. Rabbi Salas was deeply moved. “Their beautiful singing transported all of us to our beloved Israel, with its ancient faith that keeps us and maintains us throughout our journeys in so many countries and so many epochs through time,” he says.

The story of the Bnei Anousim in Amsterdam, who reclaimed their heritage after being forced out of their homes in Portugal, and who went on to proudly influence the economic and intellectual development of the many lands where the Dutch settled in the coming centuries, is inspiring on its own. How much more so for modern day Bnei Anousim who, with Rabbi Salas and Shavei Israel’s help, have the opportunity to make history again.

Shavei Israel marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Italy

Italian Holocaust Remembrance Day program

Italian Holocaust Remembrance Day program

Today (January 27, 2015) is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Held annually since 2006, the date commemorates the liberation by Soviet troops of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945. Events all over the world mark the day, including in Italy, where Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Sicily and southern Italy, Rabbi Pinchas Punturello, reports on what’s planned.

“We are holding a study day at the infamous Steri Palace in Palermo,” Rabbi Punturello says. The Steri served as the headquarters of the Inquisition in Palermo from 1601 – 1782, also functioning as a holding cell for Jews awaiting their fate in the terrible auto-da-fe – execution by burning. The theme of the day’s classes and lectures is more recent, Rabbi Punturello adds: “The Expulsion of Jewish professors from universities in Italy following the imposition of Racial Laws during World War II.’”

Participants in the Holocaust Remembrance Day classes in Palermo are to include both members of the Italian Jewish community and a group of Bnei Anousim with whom Shavei Israel and Rabbi Punturello have been working since 2013. This includes Carlo, Marco and Salvo who came to Jerusalem in 2013 on a Shavei Israel-sponsored seminar for Italian Bnei Anousim (see our report here).

“The fact that the two groups are coming together is a sign of pride for us at Shavei Israel,” Rabbi Punturello says. “It shows that the Bnei Anousim are part of the Italian Jewish reality just like everyone else. And it shows that, at Shavei Israel, we not only help people to return to Judaism, we support them to become part of the local Jewish tradition and culture.”

At the end of 2014, there was another meeting point between the communities when a Jewish group from Milan made the 15-hour trip south to get to know the Bnei Anousim in Sicily. “The Milan group met with local Bnei Anousim from Palermo and Catania to hear their stories,” Rabbi Punturello reports. “This was a very important step; it helped to open their eyes to the work we are doing.”

But the best was yet to come: Rabbi Punturello visited a small mountain village called Valguarera Caropepe. “The villagers invited me because they had a fascinating story they wanted to tell me. One of the churches in the county had a Magen David [a Star of David] on the bell tower until a few years ago, when the new priest had it removed as part of a restoration. They still had a picture of the tower with the Magen David, though, which they showed me.”

But even more amazing: “All the people buried in that church have rings on their fingers in the shape of a Star of David! Needless to say, they are very interested in what this means about their own Jewish roots and they want to know more about Judaism and the Bnei Anousim. They are continuing to do research and I will go back to Valguarera Caropepe to help them more next month.”

Bnei Anousim mark Global Judaism Day in Portugal

Rabbi Salas at Global Day of Jewish Learning in Portugal

Rabbi Salas at Global Day of Jewish Learning in Portugal

In 2010, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is best known for the English and Hebrew translations of the Talmud that bear his name, established a now annual event: The Global Day of Jewish Learning. The day is intended to “imbue an appreciation for the texts that define us, and to inspire hope in the commonalities that unite us,” and every year, thousands of Jews come together in their communities, homes and online to deepen a shared passion for Jewish knowledge.

This year, for the fifth Global Day of Jewish Learning, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas, joined the study celebration. He led the small Bnei Anousim community in Belmonte, Portugal in a series of classes according to the 2014 Global Day theme: “Heroes and Villains, Saints and Fools: The People in the Book,” whereby every session focused on a different Biblical character.

This was Rabbi Salas’ second year participating in the Global Day of Jewish Learning. In 2013, he led classes in the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation in Trancoso, Portugal. The Center, which was opened in 2013, is backed by the Trancoso municipality and was designed to commemorate the countless Portuguese Jews who were persecuted, displaced or forcibly converted. The $1.5 million Cardoso Center includes a synagogue containing the first Sefer Torah to make its home in Trancoso in 500 years. (You can read our complete coverage here).

Both Global Days of Jewish Learning – in Trancoso and Belmonte – were sponsored by Shavei Israel. We have a few pictures below.

Rabbi Salas (center) with Argentinian ambassador to Portugal (right)

Rabbi Salas (center) with Argentinian ambassador to Portugal (right)

Also in December: Rabbi Salas hosted the Argentinean ambassador to Portugal, who visited Belmonte to get to know the community there, before continuing on with Rabbi Salas to Lisbon.

We have a picture of Rabbi Salas and Ambassador Jorge Martin Arturo Arguello here.

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