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 communities celebrate Tu B’Shvat 2015 around the world

Last week the Jewish world celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the annual “New Year for the Trees,” and Shavei Israel’s communities joined in the fun by holding parties, planting trees and eating plenty of fruits and nuts. From Portugal to Poland, Bogota to Beit Shemesh, “Lost” and “Hidden” Jewish communities had their fill of almonds, cashews, olives, apricots, figs and even the occasional cranberry. Here’s a round-up of pictures and stories from some of those celebrations.

Portuguese group planting a tree for Tu B'Shvat

Portuguese group planting a tree for Tu B’Shvat

PortugalShavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas, marked the holiday with a new group of students in the small town of Seixal, near Lisbon. During their festivities, they screened a film called Miracles of Israel, which traced Jewish history from Abraham to the present, and they planted a tree in honor of the holiday.

Rabbi Ellis leads a Tu B'Shvat Seder in Poland

Rabbi Ellis leads a Tu B’Shvat Seder in Poland

PolandShavei Israel emissary Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis sent us some stunning black and white photos of the Tu B’shvat party held in Katowice. Rabbi Ellis led a Tu B’Shvat Seder, a Kabbalistic custom initiated in the 16th century, where different fruits and nuts are eaten together with the appropriate blessings while stories are told that highlight the spiritual significance of each food. Thirty people participated. Rabbi Ellis led a second Seder the following night in the Polish town of Gilwice.

Subbotnik Jews celebrate with emissary Rabbi Zelig Avrasin in Beit Shemesh

Subbotnik Jews celebrate with emissary Rabbi Zelig Avrasin in Beit Shemesh

As it has for the past several years, the Subbotnik Jewish community in Beit Shemesh organized a Tu B’Shvat Seder in the Netzach Menashe synagogue. Rabbi Zelig Avrasin, Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Subbotnik community in both Israel and Russia, presided over the festivities, which included snacks, music and two books written in Russian especially for the Subbotnik Jews: one published last year by Shavei Israel for Tu B’Shvat, and a brand new book on the traditions of Rosh Hodesh, the beginning of the Jewish month. We’ll have more details on that next week.

Bogota likes its bananas at Tu B'Shvat time

Bogota likes its bananas at Tu B’Shvat time

In the picture to the right, you can see the Bnei Anousim community at the Har Sinai synagogue in Bogota, Colombia, celebrating with some very South American looking bananas.

El Salvador comes out in force for Tu B'Shvat

El Salvador comes out in force for Tu B’Shvat

And to the left, some pictures from Colombia’s neighbor to the northwest, El Salvador. These are from the large group Seder held by the Bnei Anousim communities in the town of Armenia and the country’s capital San Salvador.

Finally, we fly to China…by way of Israel. Our pictures of the Chinese Jewish community celebrating Tu B’Shvat this year were actually taken here in the Holy Land, where some of the Chinese Jewish men whom Shavei Israel has helped to make aliyah over the past several years joined a Hebrew University group that included students from China who are studying in Jerusalem, and Israelis who are enrolled in Hebrew U’s Chinese and East Asian Studies program.

Combined Chinese New Year - Tu B'Shvat celebration in Jerusalem

Combined Chinese New Year – Tu B’Shvat celebration in Jerusalem

Together they marked both Tu B’Shvat and the Chinese New Year, which takes place on February 19, and like Tu B’Shvat, signifies the beginning of the spring season. In the pictures, the Jews from China are shown in their army uniforms; the student in the suit and tie served as the emcee and English-to-Chinese translator. The evening was sponsored by the Israeli advocacy organization Stand with Us and included a dramatic Kung Fu demonstration. But the clear highlight was when the Chinese Jews retold the inspiring story of how they made the long journey from the tiny Jewish community in Kaifeng to become proud and fully Jewish IDF soldiers.

Chinese Jews celebrating Tu B'Shvat in Jerusalem

Chinese Jews celebrating Tu B’Shvat in Jerusalem

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

Portuguese parliament

Portuguese parliament

In 2012, the Spanish government approved a draft bill offering citizenship to the descendants of Sephardi Jews who were exiled or compelled to embrace Catholicism as Anousim (or Marranos) during the terrible years of the Inquisition over 500 years ago. Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund praised the move at the time, saying it signified “that tangible steps are at last being taken to address the injustices that were perpetrated on Iberian Jewry in the 15th century.”

Three years after Spain’s dramatic decision, Portugal has now followed suit. Last week, the Portuguese Cabinet approved a change to its nationality law, granting dual citizenship rights to descendants of Jews who were expelled or forcibly converted to Catholicism half a millennia ago.

Both Portugal and Spain’s moves are still preliminary and have not become law yet. But they represent an opportunity for the Jewish State. Following Portugal’s announcement, Shavei Israel Chairman Freund says that it is time for “the Israeli government to embark on a new strategic approach and to reach out to the Bnei Anousim. As a growing number of Bnei Anousim are looking to strengthen their Jewish identity and reclaim their roots, it is vital that Israel take steps to strengthen their connection with the Jewish state and the Jewish people. If the Portuguese and Spanish governments recognize the importance of this community, the Israeli government can and should do the same.”

Shavei Israel has a number of long-running programs and outreach to Bnei Anousim, both in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. In Portugal, Shavei Israel emissary Rabbi Elisha Salas provides support to Jews reclaiming their roots. Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham does the same in Spain, as does Rabbi Pinhas Punturello in Italy, where he runs programs for Bnei Anousim in Sicily and the southern part of the country.

In Israel, Shavei Israel runs the Machon Miriam Spanish and Portuguese language Conversion and Return Institute for Bnei Anousim seeking to return to the Jewish people. Shavei Israel also conducts seminars for Bnei Anousim on roots trips to Israel, such as one that Rabbi Punturello ran for Italian Jews last year.

In recent years, Shavei Israel has reached out to Anousim communities beyond Europe. El Salvador has a small but vibrant Bnei Anousim community of several hundred people, served by emissary Rabbi Isaac Aboud. Rabbi Marcelo Shimon Yehoshua is Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Colombia. Shavei Israel has even appointed an emissary, Rabbi Rafael Zerajia, to work with the 35 Bnei Anousim in Santiago Chile.

While Central and South America have relatively small communities of Bnei Anousim, the number of descendants of Jews who were forced into hiding or exile in Spain and Portugal today adds up to potentially millions. Will all take advantage of the citizenship opportunities now being offered in those countries? Or will the newfound openness in Spain and Portugal make it easier for Bnei Anousim to reconnect to their heritage in Israel, the land of their ancestors?

In order to apply for dual citizenship in Portugal, proof of Sephardic ancestry will be required. This can be through one’s last name, the language spoken in the family, or through evidence of direct descent. Prospective candidates will be vetted by Portuguese Jewish community institutions. In Spain, the number of requests submitted is already said to number in the thousands.

The new law is the latest in a set of moves towards righting historical wrongs in Portugal. In 1988, former president Mario Soares formally apologized for the Inquisition, and in 2000, the leader of Portugal’s Roman Catholics publicly apologized for the treatment of the Jews by the Catholic Church. In 2008 a monument was erected outside the Sao Domingos church where thousands of Jews were massacred on a single day in 1506.

The Portuguese crown initially welcomed Jews in 1492 following the expulsion of the Jews from neighboring Spain, but just four years later, demanded of the 80,000 Jews who had crossed the border that they either convert or leave. King Manuel I later outlawed their departure entirely, forcing them to convert and turning them into the crypto-Jews whose descendants are now discovering that once mysterious traditions – candles lit on Friday nights, ritual house cleaning and flat bread baked every year in the spring – are evidence of a Jewish past. That even such small reminders of a rich Jewish past survived is a testament to the great risk many Anousim took as they practiced Judaism covertly over the centuries.

Jose Ribeiro e Castro, a lawmaker who was involved in drafting the legislation in Portugal, remarked about the bitter history of the Jews in his country, “We wish it had never happened. Given that it did happen, and that it can be put right, we thought we ought to do so.”

“The Bnei Anousim are our brethren and, through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from us under duress,” emphasizes Shavei Chairman Freund. “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.”

For more than a decade, this has been Shavei Israel’s mission. If you would like to join us in our work, please visit the Support Us page on the Shavei Israel website.

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