Embracing the convert on Shavuot
It is customary to read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. In that book, Ruth says to Naomi (1:16): “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” On Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the Torah we include those who received it at Sinai, and, especially, those who, like Ruth, chose to receive the Torah. Around the time of the holiday of Shavuot, we felt it is the perfect time to celebrate those who convert to Judaism. We chose a particular movement that is taking hold all over, but particularly in Latin America.
Today, the descendants of the Inquisition-era Conversos of Spain, Portugal, South America as well as in other countries are going through a deep process of returning to their Jewish origins. These ‘Bnei Anousim’ are claiming their historical right to return to their roots and to the bosom of the Jewish people.
When the doors of the ‘New World’ were opened to these Bnei Anousim, since the 15th century, the new continent was a magical and tempting destination for people as a land where there were great opportunities to improve the standard of living. In addition, the New World was seen as a relatively liberal environment, which would accept and allow a return to an open and full Jewish life, unlike Spain and Portugal which were ruled by the Inquisition.
Those refugees participated for several generations in the settlement and development of Brazil and other countries, occupying senior positions in all fields. Nevertheless, the long hands of the Inquisition eventually reached the new colonies as well, but this fact did not prevent the new Christians from continuing to secretly maintain the tradition of their ancestors. Many families maintained hidden Jewish customs and traditions, along with a strong Jewish identity. This great burden has been passed down from generation to generation, until the present day.
Today there is a trend of ’emerging’ Jewish communities composed mostly of converts, particularly in South and Central America, especially in Colombia. A large number of these converts have Jewish origin, going back to the dark days of the Inquisition. Many have rediscovered their Jewish roots and hidden traditions that their grandparents had camouflaged, fearing persecution, and embarked on a journey back to Judaism.
In these communities, as in other Jewish communities around the world, the synagogue is the center of their Jewish life. It is a house of prayer, often houses a mikva, school and/or classes, and sometimes even housing to allow for members who live too far to walk to stay there on Shabbat.
However, for the most part these communities are all separate from the existing Jewish communities and have great challenges in literally setting up a Jewish community from scratch.
Today there are hundreds of these emerging communities and Shavei Israel is in contact with about 50 of them that align themselves with Orthodox Judaism such as Beit Hillel in Bogota, Colombia, Antiochia, in Medellin, Colombia, Magen Avraham in Cali, Colombia, Shemaya and Avtalyon in Armenia, El Salvador, Sha’ar Hashamayim in Guatemala, Jewish Association in Ambato, Ecuador, Beit Yisrael in Lima, Peru, Beit Moshe in Mexico City, Mexico, and many more…
May the Jewish community continue to merit being joined by people who embrace our traditions, our rituals, and our people.