A Spanish Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem for Bnei Anousim

A Spanish Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem for Bnei Anousim

Baruch Israel lays tefillin for the first time at the Western Wall

Baruch Israel lays tefillin for the first time at the Western Wall

When family and friends used to ask Baruch Israel what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t answer like the other kids by specifying a profession. It wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer to which Baruch aspired. “When I grow up, I want to be Jewish,” he would say emphatically.

Baruch’s goal has now been fulfilled. Born in Elda, in the southeast of Spain, Baruch and his family are Bnei Anousim – descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism some 500 years ago – and who today have made a full return to Judaism…and to Israel. The family – Baruch, his mother and grandmother – moved to Israel in 2012 and Baruch’s mother Sarah told the story of her son’s youthful dream at the young man’s bar mitzvah, which was held earlier this year near Jerusalem.

The family might never have found its way to Israel at all were it not for the help of Shavei Israel. Sarah explains that her mother spent years searching to find “the truth of G-d’s existence. She looked in vegetarianism, naturopathy, yoga, even different religions.” It wasn’t until the family met Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Spain, Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, “that we discovered our true identity – that this need for soul-searching” was an expression of long-hidden Jewish roots.

Suddenly, mysterious family traditions began to make sense. For example, both of her grandmothers maintained two kitchens in their homes, “one that was always clean and one that was not used,” a possible link back to the laws of kashrut that require milk and meat to be separated. In another hint, this one reminiscent of the way kitchen utensils are prepared for Passover, her grandfather would from time to time clean the pots and pans in the kitchen in an unusual way – by removing all the screws from the handles and immersing them in a saucepan of boiling water. “I remember saying to him, Grandpa, these pans are so cheap, why not just purchase new ones?” Sarah recalls.

The family never went to church – another strange custom in a small predominantly Catholic Spanish town – and they lit memorial candles for family members who had died. Even the family surname, Pardo, is a traditionally Jewish one, Sarah discovered.

In 2007, Sarah participated in her first Shavei Israel seminar, held in Palma de Mallorca. “That was our first real contact with other people with anousim origins,” Sarah says. She joined a second and third seminar in 2008 and 2009, and Baruch and his grandmother traveled to Israel on a Shavei Israel-sponsored trip. “All of these meetings, along with the Shavei Israel team, gave us the encouragement we needed to move forward,” Sarah says.

By this time, the family was now living an observant lifestyle in Spain. “We stopped eating any foods forbidden by the Torah, I put up mezuzot at home and began keeping the Sabbath. Baruch was circumcised by a Jewish surgeon and mohel.”

Baruch took the changes in stride. “Because of his peaceful character, he always had a lot of friends,” Sarah continues. Still, he was different than the kids around him. “If we were going somewhere, he could not eat many of the things served. He did not celebrate school events such as the carnival, which is really a pagan feast, nor did he go to school on Jewish holidays.” Increasingly, “our family, friends, and neighbors, who knew we practiced Judaism, told us we should go and live in Israel.”

Before that could take place, though, the family needed to formally convert to Judaism. Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, Shavei Israel’s educational director, helped advise the family. They moved to Madrid, and after two intense years, the conversion was completed under the auspices of the Madrid chief rabbinate. “We will always be wholeheartedly grateful to Rabbi Birnbaum,” Sarah says.

The stay in Madrid was financially difficult for the family. Sarah couldn’t continue with her work back in Elda as a nursing assistant in a center for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Sarah’s mother, Shulamit, who had worked most of her life in Elda’s shoe industry, sold the family’s house to cover expenses.

By the time aliyah finally came, “all our money was gone,” Sarah says. But with benefits from the Israeli Ministry of Absorption and hard work, the family has been able to make ends meet in their new home.

Sarah works in a daycare center for children from the Bnei Menashe community, while attending Hebrew ulpan. (“I’m in level gimel now,” she reports proudly.) Baruch, meanwhile, is thriving. “He has become an Israeli completely, with many friends who love him,” Sarah says. He’s also doing very well in school, getting 100’s in his Mishnah, Torah and Talmud classes. “God has sent us wonderful people who watch out for our welfare.”

Among those wonderful people is the Dimri family, fellow Spanish-speakers and neighbors, who have taken the new immigrants under their wing, inviting them for Shabbat meals and opening their home completely. Yonatan Dimri is the director of the Netivot Yosef Yeshiva in Mitzpe Yericho and the gabai of the local Sephardi synagogue. Yonatan’s influence has been particularly important, Sarah says, because Baruch grew up without a father (his parents divorced when he was very young).

So, when Baruch received his first pair of tefillin, it was Yonatan who showed him how to put them on. The Dimri family also made all the arrangements for the hanachat tefillin celebration prior to Baruch’s bar mitzvah, which took place at the Kotel (Western Wall) and concluded with a festive kiddush attended by 25 people. Among the special guests: Rabbi Moshe Ben-Dahan, whom the family knew from Madrid.

Sarah is elated at seeing her son become bar mitzvah in Israel, and fulfilling so many dreams – her own and the yearning of her anousim ancestors. “There is no life for the Jewish neshama (soul) outside Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel),” Sarah says. She likens their process to that of the Biblical patriarch Abraham to whom God said lech lecha – go unto a land that God would show him. “God told us, too, to rise up; to go away. He drove us from Elda to Madrid and from there to Israel.”

For Baruch, whom his mother recalls would often sing Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, before going to sleep back in Spain, Israel has been nothing short of transformational. “He needed to see that there was a place where what we were learning about and practicing at home, that really existed. It was truly a gift from heaven that we met Shavei Israel. Thank you for caring about Baruch…and for all of us.”

We have more pictures from Baruch’s celebration at the Kotel below.

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