Belmonte Portugal welcomes new Hebrew teacher

Penina Amid spells out the number 9 for students in Belmont

Penina Amid spells out the number 9 for students in Belmont

The Bnei Anousim community in Belmonte, Portugal has a new Hebrew teacher. Penina Amid, who taught Hebrew in the Israeli school system for most of her career and is now retired, is volunteering her time in Belmonte during March as part of an annual project called the “Month of Hebrew.” The program, which is sponsored by the Belmonte municipality, is mainly intended for non-Jews who wish to connect with Belmonte’s Jewish past – the town had a thriving Jewish community prior to the Inquisition. Amid is teaching a weekly class for local residents.

In addition, Amid is teaching Hebrew to the approximately 100 members of the Bnei Anousim community in Belmonte. These classes are being run daily and include both group and individual one-on-one sessions.

Belmonte is the home base for Shavei Israel’s emissary to Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas, who teaches the community Jewish topics – in Portuguese. Belmonte’s Bnei Anousim have never had a dedicated Hebrew teacher…until now. Her tenure in town won’t be long, but it is greatly appreciated.

Amid is staying at Shavei Israel’s Beit HaAnusim center in town. Before her visit to Portugal, she also volunteered to teach Hebrew to recent Ethiopian Jewish immigrants in Israel.

We have more information on Belmonte here in this article by Leah Jaya Bisquert Bertomeu, who spent Passover with the Bnei Anousim community in 2013. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin also visited Belmonte and wrote about his trip in 2011.

Under the Radar, Shavei Israel Has Brought Back Thousands

Bnei Menashe on their way to Israel

Bnei Menashe on their way to Israel

Shavei Israel has been around for over a decade. Its mission is a unique one: to reach out to communities of people who claim to be long lost Jews. They became known early on for highlighting the plight of Iberian (Spanish and Portuguese) descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity. Today, their primary stage is in India, but they have expanded operations around the world.

“It’s no surprise that we’re finding traces in all kinds of locations,” Shavei Israel Founder and Director Michael Freund told Arutz Sheva. “It is intriguing that over the last 10 or 20 years, there’s been a real awakening of Jewish descendants across the planet, throughout the 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds. From Portugal to Peru, Brazil to Barcelona, people are looking to explore or reclaim Jewish roots or heritage.”

Freund describes a “broad agenda” where they are not solely focused on a total package for returning Jews that would include formal conversion and aliyah to Israel. There are people who simply want to convert but stay where they are. There are others who may choose more later but simply want to be acquainted with their heritage at this point. For some, organized religion is not even an option.

But conversion is a critical component of Shavei Israel’s work. Because there can be no certainty after dozens of generations of someone’s matrilineal ancestry, it is a foregone conclusion anyone from these communities would have to undergo a conversion to assure his or her status among the Jewish people.

Freund emphasized that it was the Israeli Rabbinate, not Shavei Israel, that oversaw that process.

“We don’t convert anyone,” he said. ”We assist people and prepare them for it. We guide them spiritually and are there before during after the conversion. But we leave this to the Beit Din.”

When asked about Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum’s role in the organization – who also sits on the official Rabbinical Court for Conversion of Minors, Freund clarified that he was “a volunteer with the organization. His role there is only with minors, so he doesn’t engage in conversions for people involved in the process also attached to Shavei Israel in any case.”

Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram

The Bnei Menashe are unique for their geographic distance from Israel and their claims to be primarily descended from the Tribe of Menashe, one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel when Sanheriv swept through the Northern Kingdom 200 years before Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem. If that argument is true, the time gap between now and their ancestors’ break from the Jewish people would still be the longest of all the communities Shavei Israel works with.

Since starting work with that community, 3,000 people have been assisted by the organization to make the journey to Jerusalem, but 7,000 are still waiting.

Aliyah had been shut down by the Olmert government in 2007,” he noted. “We brought 230 people that year and then Olmert shut it down for political reasons.”

“I waged an intensive lobbying campaign to resume the aliyah,” he continued. ”Thank God, that happened and then in October 2012 the Netanyahu government passed a resolution allowing 275 Bnei Menashe to come to Israel as part of a sort of pilot program. In October 2013, a new resolution permitted 900.”

Aliyah, though, would not necessarily be the best term for the process Bnei Menashe go through. They come to Israel on special visas in order to convert to Judaism, then receive something known as a teudat hamarah upon conversion that allows them to apply for citizenship as Jews. Freund takes pains to point out though that Bnei Menashe are not going through “mass conversions.”

“There is no such thing as mass conversion in Judaism,” he said. ”It’s a personal transformative process.”

“Every family in the community goes through that process,” he continued. “They come together to Israel and study as a group, but when the time comes the families will go before the Beit Din and each member is individually interviewed by the Beit Din. There have been some cases where part of the family was converted yet other members were asked to continue studying before finishing.”

There is an interest to allow families to experience this together and not feel they are somehow torn apart. There are other considerations that come into play also for husbands and wives, but the ability of the conversion court to reject or delay a candidate maintains the process’ integrity.

“All Bnei Menashe who come to Israel go through the conversion process set up by former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and which current Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef adopted and has continued,” he stated. ”At the end of the day, we want the Bnei Menashe to be accepted here in Israel and don’t want people casting doubt or aspersions on their Jewish status. It is important for us, the Rabbinate and for the converts themselves that the conversions be comprehensive and complete.”

Nobody Expects to Reverse the Spanish Inquisition

The most famous project Shavei Israel has had though is by far and away work with Jews who descend from countries once under the thumb of the Spanish monarchy and its infamous Inquisition. Beyond Spain and Portugal, that has led to a growing amount of work for the group’s emissaries in Latin America and even southern Italy.

“It cuts across all socioeconomic boundaries,” he said. ”I’ve met professors in northern Portugal who have formally returned to Judaism and met poor people in northern Brazil who’ve undergone a similar process. They’re looking for an anchor in their family histories.”

Freund says that there are number of reasons they are seeing such explosive demand now to return to Judaism. One reason he cites is a confluence of democracy in Spain and Portugal, plus the experiment with the European Union (EU).

“Only in the past 30-40 years have they undergone transformations into western democracies,” he said. “The power of the church has also declined significantly.”

“People in those two countries feel freer to express their Bnei Anousim identity and to explore it more openly than was once possible in the past,” he said. “Add to that as a lot of academics talk about living in a post-modern world and the European Union project to knock down borders and efforts to forge common European identity hasn’t worked well.”

What Freund is describing is a fissure through which his organization has been able to step in at the right time. When asked to quantify the work with Latin Americans or Iberians, he describes that in some countries like Colombia, there are easily 3,000 people who have formed their own federations of Bnei Anousim Jews.

“There are some 20 independent communities of Bnei Anousim,” he said. “They formed their own communities with their own mikveh, spiritual leader, and more. Close to 3,000 people are actively living Jewish lives even though they haven’t undergone any formal return or conversion.”

“We are active there – we initiated a nationwide federation networking those Bnei Anousim community,” he continued. “They are serious people. “

He does not dare guess if they will follow the organized return of the Bnei Menashe, but in his attempts to quantify the phenomenon to return to Judaism has described a significant difference maker in some countries’ Jewish population.

“In the EU project we see an effort to dilute national identities and replace them with continent-wide European identity, but now people are already asking themselves questions about who they really are, more than they did in the past.”

Freund closed by taking to task anyone who thinks his work is unnecessary or a diversion of resources away from members of the established Jewish community.

“I believe we the Jewish people have a historical, moral and religious responsibility to reach out to descendants of Jews and bring them home,” he stated. “They are our lost brethren.”

“Many of them only via their ancestors at no fault of their own were kidnapped from us,” he added. “If we have an opportunity to bring their descendants back, then how could we possibly not do so and slam the door on them?

“People by nature are tribal and have innate need to id with something larger than ourselves,” he concluded. ”[There's a] sports team analogy: ‘We won. WE won the championship’ - as if they were on the field – [which] points to a psychological reality to feel connected to something beyond themselves.”

“We see that in the EU project, one hand to dilute national identities and replace with continent-wide european identity, but now people are already asking themselves questions about identity. People asking a lot more questions about who they are or what they are than in the past.”

 This article appeared originally on the Israel National News website.

From Sicily to Naples, Italian Crypto-Jews are Returning

Rabbi Punturello (center with glasses) leading Hanukah candle lighting in Palermo, Italy

Rabbi Punturello (center with glasses) leading Hanukah candle lighting in Palermo, Italy

When we talk about crypto-Jews, we tend to think about the descendants of Spanish Jews in 1492 and Portuguese Jews in 1497 who were forced to convert to Catholicism but who maintained the Torah in secret. But we tend to forget that the Catholic Church and the Inquisition also had influence in Italy, particularly Sicily. In Spanish they were often called conversos or marranos; in Hebrew, “Bnei Anousim,” literally the “Children of the Forced.”

Rabbi Pinhas Pierpaolo Punturello (who thankfully for my limited Italian skills also goes by Rav Pinhas) is a product of that lesser known crypto-Jewish community in Italy. He remembers his family covering up mirrors in their house after his grandmother died when he was a boy (a common Jewish mourning custom); he found links to Judaism on both sides of his family; and after finally choosing to pursue Judaism, he became the spiritual leader of a small community in Naples.

Since then, he has planted his family in Israel. Yet as the first official emissary of Shavei Israel to Bnei Anousim in southern Italy, he finds himself in cities like Palermo two weeks out of the month.

“Palermo in Sicily is one the most active and vibrant communities I work with. You can find many articles about the Hanukkah candles at Steri Palace (the Inquisition Castle in Sicily) but we aren’t limited to that. We also have groups in places like Calabria and Apulia.”

Sicily was once under the control of the resurgent Spanish Empire, unfortunately for Sicilian Jews during the time of the Inquisition. While the Inquisition’s program only went into full force for Sicilians in 1493, a year after the major expulsions in Spain, it still hit the community with the same intensity. The same would happen to other locations in Italy.

“In 1493 we had the very same expulsions and forced conversions (in Sicily) for Jews and Muslims on the island (as in Spain). In Naples, they had several different expulsions due to the economic status of the Jewish population.”

Spain conquered Naples from France in 1503. Almost immediately, the Inquisition launched operations against non-Catholics in the area.

“From 1504 through 1549, every year a different group of Jews were forced to leave that city as well. You can easily imagine the phenomenon of themarranos or Bnei Anousim started to become a common problem. Moving was a temporary solution for many, many people.”

The good news is coupled with some roadblocks for Italians trying to break back into the Jewish world. The resurgence of Jewish identity on the peninsula has caught the 40,000-strong Jewish community in Italy mostly by surprise, despite Italian Jews being well aware that many of their ancestors might have been forced into hiding like crypto-Jews in Spain.

“The Italian Rabbinate is living now in what I like to define as a moment of discovering the something that was already well known. In other words, we are now facing this new reality where people are coming back to their roots, a historical and well-known subject that only in our generation became a practical matter. Only in our generation has it become a religious issue, or a conversion issue.”

“Some of the Italian Rabbis are so moved by this and very compassionate toward these people. Some are Halakhically skeptical.”

It is at this point where Rav Pinhas steps in. He is working on building a self-sustaining community from dozens of potential returning converts to Judaism.

“My job is to work on two fronts: bringing these people back home on the one hand and trying to convince Rabbis in Italy to be more open-minded on the other.”

He has led seminars for the Jewish community at large and Shabbatons for Bnei Anousim in Sicily and southern Italy.

That work leads Rav Pinhas to guide students both in their trips to Israel and in their native Italy. At the moment, he is working with 100 Italian students between the two countries – at one point having more students in Calabria than Palermo. Some of them see themselves in Israel more permanently, while others have not made such a commitment.

Regardless, interest in a full-fledged return, converting to Judaism, is on the minds of many of his pupils. And many are also planning on going the extra few hundred miles and aiming for Aliyah.

“Some of them are here in Israel at Shavei Israel’s Machon Miriam Conversion and Return Institute in Jerusalem.”

This article appeared originally on the Israel National News website.

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

Shavei Israel communities celebrate Tu B’Shvat 2015 around the world

Portugal offers dual citizenship to Bnei Anousim; time for Israel to make similar overtures

Shavei Israel marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Italy

Bnei Anousim mark Global Judaism Day in Portugal

Shavei Israel’s Hanukah round up 2014

Update from Sicily and southern Italy: 40 Bnei Anousim participate in Shabbaton

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Happy Sukkot from Shavei Israel: is the biggest etrog in El Salvador?

Shavei Israel publishes Shabbat guide in Italian

Shavei Israel opens its first Internet radio station – in Portuguese

Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund wins “Lion of Zion” award

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El Salvador hosts star-studded “congress” for Bnei Anousim

Shavei Israel publishes new Purim booklet in Spanish

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From expulsion to expediency: Spain, the Jews and Israel

Modern day Exodus: the remarkable story of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim community

Pictures from candle-lighting in Palermo’s infamous Steri prison

Historic Hanukkah Ceremony at Inquisition Prison

Shavei Israel Hanukah activities in Europe, South America and India

New Shavei Israel emissaries to Poland and South America

Shavei Israel publishes new Hanukah guide in Spanish and Russian

Majorca’s master chef returns to the Jewish people

Shavei Israel to light Hanukah candles in infamous Inquisition prison

Seminar for Chuetas takes place in Palma de Mallorca

Seminar for Italian Jews and Bnei Anousim in Israel

When in Rome, do as Jews do

Dozens attend panel on Chuetas in Palma de Mallorca

Grazia’s Mediterranean Lasagna

VIDEO: Gila and Ariel Arditi get married

Shavei Israel appoints new Latin American emissaries

Portuguese town gets first Torah in 500 years

A visit to the Belmonte Jewish community in Portugal

Bnei Anousim couple return to Judiasm, re-marry in Jewish ceremony

Yeshiva for Bnei Anousim in Colombia launched

Shavei Israel helps organize Shabbaton for more than 100 Colombian Bnei Anousim in Bogota

100 issues of “Roots”

All-Italy Jewish seminar invites Bnei Anousim for first time

Shavei Israel and WebYeshiva launch new online interactive classes

Update: First Passover Seder on Portuguese island of Madeira

Shavei Israel sponsors first public Passover Seder in centuries on Portuguese island of Madeira

Shavei Israel visits Bnei Anousim in Chile

Shavei Israel sponsors weekend seminar in southern Italy; appoints new rabbi to work with Bnei Anousim

Shavei Israel launches interactive virtual course in Spanish

First Jewish cultural center in Portugal in more than 500 years to open; Shavei Israel to administer programming

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Justice at last: the “Portuguese Dreyfus” is posthumously reinstated

Justice at Last for “Portugese Dreyfus”, Artur de Barros Basto

Ancient “kina” for Tisha B’Av discovered

Tiny Portuguese village inaugurates state-of-the-art new Jewish Center and synagogue

Was Columbus secretly a Jew?

Shavei Israel publishes new prayer book in Portuguese

Michael Freund interview on the Aaron Klein show on WABC

Shavei Israel launches new Spanish-language website for Bnei Anousim

Special Chueta recipe: Mallorcan Passover almond torte

Shavei Israel holds seminar for remote Brazilian community of Bnei Anousim

Closing the circle in Mallorca

Michael Freund returns to the 92Y for a conversation with Chueta Regina Forteza

Jews of Majorca reconnect with their roots

Michael Freund to speak at Hong Kong JCC

Shavei Israel visits Portugal – report and pictures

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The Everlasting Light: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin visits Belmonte, Portugal

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Clinging to Judaism

Time to rehabilitate Portugal’s Dreyfus

A special seminar in Palma de Mallorca for Spain’s Bnei Anousim and Chuetas

Fundamentally Freund – Jewish life in Sicily reborn

First of its kind seminar for Marranos in Siciliy

Chuetas from Spanish Island of Majorca Recognized as Jewish

‘Lost tribe’ of Mallorca Jews welcomed back to the faith 600 years later

Six centuries after their forcible conversion, a leading Israeli rabbi rules that the Chuetas of Mallorca are Jews

Chuetas of Majorca recognized as Jewish

Majorcan Descendants of Spanish Jews Who Converted Are Recognized as Jews

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An historic condemnation of the Inquisition in Palma de Mallorca

Apologizing for the Inquisition

For first time, Spain’s Balearic Islands officially condemn persecution and forced conversion of Chuetas

In Majorca, Atoning for the Sins of 1691

The Renaissance of the B’nai Anousim (Crypto-Jews)

A special Yom Kippur Mahzor has been released

New emissary to the ‘crypto-Jew’s in Portugal

Rabbi Elisha Salas to be Emissary to Portugal’s Crypto-Jews

New emissary to crypto-Jews of Portugal named

First ex-Marrano Israeli rabbi returns to Spain as emissary

One Nation, Many Faces

בן לקהילת האנוסים חוזר לספרד לשמש כרב הקהילה

A 500-year journey back to Judaism

Just call him Chaim Columbus

Secret no more

‘Lost’ Jews in Spain find Israel advocacy

Israel enlisting Marranos in PR effort

Iberian anusim make first kosher cheese

Uncovering Portugal’s Hidden Jewish Past

Brazil: Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashana with new prayer book

A delegation of 16 בני אנוסים, commonly referred to as Marranos by historians, visited Israel this week

Descendants of Marranos arrive in Israel

Exhibit on Crypto-Jews Tours Brazil

A Latin Love for Israel

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Marranos come home

Bnai Anousim Visit Israel on Solidarity Mission

Iberian Jews Return to their Roots

Young Brazilian Anousim Visit Israel on Birthright

Exhibition on Crypto-Jews Opens in Tiberias

Spanish & Portuguese Crypto-Jews Gather for Barcelona Seminar

First Outreach Center for Brazilian Anousim Opens

After Five Centuries, Bnai Anousim Visit Israel

Jewish community emerges from hiding in Portugal after 500 years

Hidden Heritage

Reaching Out to Portugal’s Crypto-Jews

Brazil’s Anousim Get a Rabbi

Spain’s Crypto-Jews Seeking to Return

Build A Monument to the Inquisition

The First Kohen in 500 Years

Majorca’s Lost Jews Search for their Roots

The 500-Year Round Trip

A Synopsis of the History of the Jews in Portugal

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