How will the established Jewish community react to the millions of non-Jews who have been Judaizing themselves?
The Israeli newspaper HaAretz reported that British historian Tudor Parfitt, an expert on Judaizing movements, a keynote speaker at a Jerusalem conference in early November. stated that the number of non-Jews who believe they are descendants of Jews or ancient Israelites about equals the number of Jews who are counted in official international censuses.
For example, Matthew Fishbane reported in Tablet Magazine (July 8, 2010) that he traveled to Medellín, Colombia to see how a part of an evangelical megachurch called the Centro de Terapia Integral Para la Familia, or the Center for Integral Family Therapy, has morphed into a Hebrew-speaking, Sephardic, Orthodox Jewish community complete with daycare, a Hebrew school, a self-managed kosher market, and claims to an ancestry that makes them more returnees than converts.
In many cases, Parfitt said, this voluntary identification with the Jewish people is a relatively new phenomenon. Members of these newly identified Jewish communities could be found in places as diverse as northeastern India, Papua New Guinea, Nicaragua, the jungles of South America and southern and central Africa, he said.
The global spread, in the decades after the resurrection of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, of Evangelical Protestant Churches, with their emphases on eschatological thinking, has stimulated a select group of the ‘locals’ to relate so strongly with ancient Israelites, that they have found vestiges of Jewish identity within their own souls.
But other Judaizing communities in Africa have an even more amazing connection with Jewishness. Parfitt, an emeritus professor of modern Jewish studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, says, “I think one of the interesting, paradoxical things is the effect of the Holocaust on the way that people want to identify as Jews.
You’d think that it would be the opposite, but in the case of both the Igbo and the Tutsi tribes in Africa, for example, they both had their own genocides, and they increasingly perceive themselves as Jews as a result of that.”
Among these millions of Judaizing non-Jews are small communities in Asia and Africa that see themselves as descendants of the 10 lost tribes (the part of the original 12 Hebrew tribes deported from the Kingdom of Israel after it was conquered by the Neo-Assyrian empire in about 720 BCE).
Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on the lost Israelite tribes, said the growing worldwide Judeophile phenomenon was motivated partly by a desire for economic improvement. since many of those claiming this status were members of impoverished and marginalized communities.
But, Weil said that this was not the primary motivation and that globalization in general was a more important factor. In particular, she noted the tendency of young Israelis to explore remote corners of their world, including places where locals may not otherwise have had much interaction with Jews.
Thousands of backpackers go forth from Israel each year on post-army trips, “where they come into contact with exotic and wonderful people and begin to see similarities with their own religion,” Weil noted.
Another factor explaining the spread of proJewish identity was the worldwide rise of evangelical fundamentalism, with it’s messianic fervor. “Eschatological visions have always been associated with the 10 lost tribes,” she said.
While some of these communities, like the Bnai Menashe of Israel, have undergone official conversion processes so they could emigrate to Israel, most of them have not been driven to move to Israel as part of the realization of their Jewish identity.
“In Africa, among groups I work with, there doesn’t seem to be a large number that want to come to Israel,” noted Parfitt. “They love Israel, they support Israel, they want to study, but they’re not dying to come.”
I myself think most of them would be happy to just be welcomed into the worldwide Jewish community without the traditional Orthodox suspicion of potential converts, in fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of prophet Zachariah:
‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: “In those days (to come) ten people from every language and nation will take firm hold of each Jew by the edge of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.'” (8:23)
We should encourage Judaizing groups to grow in their Jewishness and give them help with Torah education, but we should not try to turn them into ‘shtetle’ Jews.