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Shavei Israel’s Jewish Roots book breaks records

Do you have Jewish roots eBook coverWhen Shavei Israel announced the publication last week of its new book in Spanish, Do You Have Jewish Roots?, we expected a few hundred people to request a free download of the eBook version. But within 48 hours, so many people had clicked to receive their copy that the special website we set up had crashed.

The total number of requests topped 5,000, the maximum capacity for the website, explains Estee Dahan from the J. Media Group, which is managing the download system for Shavei Israel. Needless to say, “we were extremely surprised by such incredible results,” Dahan says. J. Media Group has run many similar campaigns and never hit the limit with any other client. Fortunately, the problem was detected quickly, and the site was up and running a few hours later. The requests continue to stream in and will shortly pass the 10,000 mark.

Shavei Israel’s Tzivia Kusminsky, who heads up our Bnei Anousim department and spearheaded production of the book, says she is “shocked by how many people search for information about their roots every day on the Internet. It’s incredible! I knew that there were a lot of people, but I never thought it was so many.”

Kusminsky is referring to the fact that most of the 5,000+ downloads came from people who saw a Google Ad that Shavei Israel placed using keywords such as “searching for Jewish roots.” That means that these were people already searching for information in general about a possible Jewish heritage, not people who have an existing connection with Shavei Israel.

Even more surprising: half the people who downloaded the book are from Brazil, even though the book is currently only in Spanish. A Portuguese translation is in the final stages of production, as is an English version. Italian will follow in a second stage.

The 109-page book is the first-ever practical guide to discovering one’s Jewish heritage. Its nine chapters cover all the major questions someone at the beginning of their Jewish discovery might have – from how to conduct a genealogical search to information on “hidden” Jewish customs. Inspirational personal stories are sprinkled throughout the text and an appendix includes a section from Genie Milgrom who documented her own Jewish roots search in the book How I Found my 15 Grandmothers: A Step by Step Guide.

Do You Have Jewish Roots? was written by Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund and Shavei’s educational director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, with help from Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Spain, and Kusminsky. It is aimed at Bnei Anousim communities in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America. In addition to the free eBook version, one thousand printed copies are also being distributed by Shavei Israel’s emissaries and staff.

“We are very proud and happy to take part in such an inspiring campaign that helps others in seeking their Jewish identity,” J. Media Group’s Dahan says. Promotion of the book will be stepped up in the coming weeks with a dedicated website and YouTube video.

If you know someone who is interested in exploring their Jewish roots and speaks Spanish (or in the coming weeks Portuguese, English or Italian), please send them to this link where they can download their copy for free.

Shavei Israel publishes new book: “Do You Have Jewish Roots?”

Cover of book: Do you have Jewish roots?

Cover of book: Do you have Jewish roots?

Have you ever wondered if you might have Jewish roots? Is there a family tradition that seems unusual and that you don’t know where it comes from? Maybe your name is similar to other Jewish names from long ago?

Shavei Israel is here to help. We have just published our first ever, practical guide to discovering your Jewish heritage. The new 109-page book, available in both print and eBook versions, is called simply “Do You Have Jewish Roots?”

Its nine chapters cover all the major questions someone at the beginning of their Jewish discovery might have. There are discussions on how to conduct a genealogical search (including how to access records from the Spanish Inquisition when and if appropriate), which surnames are most commonly Jewish in different parts of the world (if you’re from Palma de Mallorca and your last name is Segura, there’s a good chance you have Jewish roots), plus information on “hidden” Jewish customs (such as candle lighting, mourning traditions, baking challah), organized by geography and history.

Personal stories are sprinkled throughout the text to provide inspiration and real world examples – if they could do it, so can you. There are questions to guide readers through their own process, and each chapter opens with a pasuk – an appropriate quotation from the Torah.

At the end of the book, we have included a section from Genie Milgrom, whose latest book, How I Found My 15 Grandmothers: A Step by Step Guide (available on Amazon.com), documents how Milgrom traced her own Jewish roots 15 generations back and proved that she was Jewish by birth. Milgrom is the president of the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Miami and lectures widely on Jewish genealogy. We wrote about Milgrom here.

The first version of Shavei’s new book is in Spanish and is aimed at Bnei Anousim in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries in Central America (El Salvador and Colombia) where there are large numbers of people interested in uncovering Jewish roots. But the examples in the book are applicable to Jewish seekers anywhere. The next two print runs will be published in Portuguese and Italian, addressing Bnei Anousim in those countries. A future edition is planned in English, as well.

The book was written by Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund and Shavei’s educational director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, with help from Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Spain, and Tzivia Kusminsky, the head of Shavei Israel’s Bnei Anousim and Hidden Jews of Poland department.

The book, which has been two years in the making, is available as an eBook online for free. Download your (Spanish) copy today. One thousand copies have been printed as well and are being distributed by Shavei Israel emissaries and staff. Some copies have already made their way to El Salvador where Michael Freund and Rabbi Birnbaum brought them to the community’s most recent Shabbaton.

If you think you might have Jewish roots, or you’re interested in following the remarkable resurgence of Jewish connection that Shavei Israel has been supporting from its inception, “Do You Have Jewish Roots?” is a must have addition for your Jewish bookshelf.

With Spanish Citizenship Now For Sephardic Jews, Israel Needs To Welcome Bnei Anousim

Bnei Anousim in Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Bnei Anousim in Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Somewhere deep in the netherworld, Spanish King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Isabella are most assuredly burning with rage. Over five centuries after the cruel monarchs expelled the country’s Jews in 1492, Spain has at last approved a law offering citizenship to their descendants, thereby extending a hand to the millions of people worldwide of Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

Israel needs to take note of this important and historic development, and it behooves the Jewish state to do likewise.

In a session held on June 11, the lower house of the Spanish parliament formally ratified the proposed bill, which is expected to pave the way for thousands of Sephardic Jews from South America to Turkey and beyond to submit applications for Spanish citizenship once it enters into force in October.

Even prior to the law’s passage, according to the Spanish daily El Pais, there was “a deluge of inquiries at Spain’s consulates” by Jews with regard to the possibility of obtaining a Spanish passport.

The move by Madrid comes after neighboring Portugal, which forcibly converted and expelled its Jews in 1497, passed a similar law earlier this year.

Of course, what makes this development so decidedly ironic is that the Expulsion happened in part because Spain wanted the Jews’ assets, and now they are welcoming Jews back for the same reason.

Nonetheless, regardless of their motivations, the governments in Madrid and Lisbon are to be commended for the gesture. These are momentous moves, signifying that tangible steps are at last being taken to address the injustices that were perpetrated on Iberian Jewry in the 15th century.

Coming at a time of rising anti-Semitism across Europe, it is refreshing to see European states making an effort to welcome Jews so openly.

This will hopefully send a strong signal to other countries on the continent, and underline how Europe’s historical connection with the Jewish people truly does stretch back over the centuries.

Needless to say, this is hardly the first time in recorded history that a European nation has banished its Jews only to readmit them at a later date.

Under King Edward I, English Jewry was expelled on July 18, 1290, (Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar), and they were officially allowed to return in 1656 under Oliver Cromwell.

In the early 14th century, over the course of less than two decades, France expelled its Jews, readmitted them and expelled them once again.

It took Spain centuries longer to void the Edict of Expulsion, which was formally rescinded on December 16, 1968, or 476 years later. Despite this, Spain has in fact done little until now to come to terms with its Jewish past.

The Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, its contributions to Spanish art, civilization and culture, are all largely overlooked in the Spanish educational system, as is the 1492 expulsion and the Inquisition’s brutal efforts to hunt down crypto-Jews. And Jewish synagogues and structures, as well as religious artifacts that were confiscated after the Jews were forced out, have yet to be returned to Jewish ownership.

Instead, in recent years, Spain has focused its efforts primarily in the direction of tourism and commerce, such as encouraging the creation of a network of “Juderias,” or Jewish quarters, throughout the country to appeal to Jewish tourists.

There is no doubt that an economic rationale also lies behind the new law on citizenship.

Spain has suffered enormously since the global financial crisis hit in 2008. Its current unemployment rate is over 22 percent, and a growing number of young people are emigrating from the country.

The prospect of forging anew a link with potentially millions of people of Sephardi ancestry, and the possible windfall that might ensue as a result of increased investment and tourism, was surely not lost on the decision-makers in Madrid when considering the citizenship bill.

In the wake of the Spanish decision, the Israeli government needs to embark on a new strategic approach and reach out to Bnei Anousim, the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were compelled to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At great risk to themselves and their families, many of the Bnei Anousim continued to practice Judaism covertly despite the Inquisition, carefully passing down their hidden identity from one generation to the next. Their descendants can be found in every corner of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, and their numbers are estimated to be in the millions.

At Shavei Israel, the organization I chair, we have seen a huge increase in recent years in the number of Bnei Anousim looking to reaffirm or reclaim their Jewish identity, in places as far afield as northern Portugal, Chile, El Salvador, Sicily and Colombia.

The Bnei Anousim are our brethren and, through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from us under duress. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to strengthen the bonds between us and bring back to the Jewish people as many of them as possible.

Steps should be taken to address the myriad bureaucratic and religious issues that stand in their way so that the door of return for the Bnei Anousim can finally swing open.

After all, if Spain, which cast their ancestors out, is seeking ways to reconcile with the descendants of Iberian Jewry, then isn’t it time for Israel to do the same?

This oped piece appeared originally in The Jewish Week.

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