Laura Ben-David speaks about Shavei Israel in the U.S.

Laura Ben-David speaks about Shavei Israel in the U.S.

Laura Ben-David speaks in Pennsylvania

Laura Ben-David speaks in Pennsylvania

Shavei Israel’s director of marketing Laura Ben-David has been on the road for the last two weeks, talking up Shavei Israel’s activities to Jewish communities across the United States. Her speaking engagements took her from New Jersey and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and San Diego, and a few places in between.

Her talks focused on three communities that Shavei Israel helps: the Bnei Menashe in India, the “Hidden” Jews of Poland, and Bnei Anousim in Spain, Portugal and South America. The one common thread: “There are people all over the world that now demonstrate a connection to Israel,” Ben-David said during her presentation in Pennsylvania at the Lower Merion Synagogue. “I feel like we’re doing something that’s very important.”

Ben-David described her visit to the Bnei Menashe in Manipur, India, last year. “I got there and I was blown away,” she said. “We thought they had disappeared, and they thought we had disappeared.”

But they hadn’t, and now their most fervent desire is to make aliyah. “To them, it’s very simple,” Ben David explained. “You’re supposed to live in Israel, so you live in Israel.”

Prior to her San Diego talk at the Southern California Yeshiva High, Ben-David described to San Diego Jewish World editor Donald Harrison how the word “Jew” was unknown to the Bnei Menashe. “They believed they were the descendants of Manasseh, the son of the biblical Joseph, and that they were the last of their kind.” The Israeli Rabbinate has accepted the Bnei Menashe’s claim to Jewish roots in part because of the community’s preservation of various Jewish customs, Ben-David explained in her San Diego interview.

Shavei Israel has helped 3,000 Bnei Menashe immigrate to Israel to date. Another 7,000 are still waiting.

Among the Bnei Anousim in Spain and Portugal, Ben-David told of concealed customs – candles on Friday nights, extensive “spring cleaning” around Passover time – whose meaning is only now being rediscovered by the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism some 500 years ago. “The practices were maintained but in many cases without the reasons for them,” Ben-David said during her talk in Pennsylvania.

Polish “Hidden” Jews have a similar story to the Bnei Anousim in Spain and Portugal, but one that’s more recent. Following the rise of Communism, the “first generation” of Polish Jews after the Holocaust did their best to pass as Catholics. But as that first generation – the grandparents of today’s young Poles – began to pass away, many dropped the bombshell, often on their deathbeds, of telling their children and grandchildren that they are actually Jewish. “They didn’t want that secret to die with them,” Ben-David said. “For a lot of these people, it kind of rocked the entire foundation of who they are.”

For example, one woman Ben-David described was so lacking in knowledge about Judaism, “she never really caught on to some of her family traditions that were different from those of their neighbors. For example, during Christmas, her grandmother used to serve potato pancakes (latkes) and donuts (sufganiot),” both symbols of Hanukah.

That said, the Hidden Jews of Poland are not itching to make aliyah, like the Bnei Menashe. “It’s much more quiet. They are extremely protective of their stories, because they have grown up with the secrecy that was built into their families. There is not a lot of fanfare,” Ben-David said.

You can read more about Ben-David’s talks on The Jewish Exponent and San Diego Jewish World websites.

If you would be intereted in arrange for a speaker from Shavei Israel to come to your community, please contact Rachel in the Shavei Israel office.