The number of people who believe they are descendants of Jews is almost equal to the number of Jews who are counted in official international censuses, according to British historian Tudor Parfitt, an expert on Judaizing movements, who was a keynote speaker at a Jerusalem conference held at the Van Leer Institute according to HaAretz newspaper.

In many cases, Parfitt said, this voluntary affiliation 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.

The new identifiers also include millions of people, mainly in Latin America (primarily Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Nicaragua), who see themselves as descendants of Jews forced to convert – also known as Conversos or Bnai Anusim – during the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago.

Several experts addressing the conference noted that the rise of evangelical Christianity in Latin America in recent years, at the expense of Catholicism, has made it easier for these people to identify as Jews and to practice Judaism, because the Jewish People and Judaism play a big role within the messianic ideology they have heard about.

As they learn about Jewish practices they sometimes remember things their great grandparents did when they were children. “Once I started looking, there was never any question,” said Medina-Sandoval, a poet and writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

She finally understood why she had an uncle who raised pigs but didn’t eat them; why her aunts put aside some dough as with the Sabbath challah bread; why she never really felt like she belonged in the Christian faith. Then she discovered she was Jewish.

Or at least her family had been Jewish, back in Spain, more than 500 years ago. Through her great grandfather’s journals and other genealogical research, she discovered her Jewish roots and eventually decided to return to the faith of her ancestors.

Then there are people like Blanca Carrasco, who grew up Catholic in Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. But by the time she reached her 20s, Catholic doctrines seemed lacking and she became an evangelical Protestant.

It wasn’t until she was invited to a Passover Seder at a Messianic Center in El Paso that she really felt connected to God.

“We felt it was familiar—it felt like home,” she said about herself and her husband, Cesar. “Right in that instance, our life changed. I needed to know more.” That led her to a decade at the El Paso Messianic Center, where the couple learned about Jewish history, holidays and Crypto-Jews.

“The `Anusim’ feel maybe there’s something Jewish in their family,” she said, using the Hebrew word for forced converts and their descendants.

Carrasco, 43, researched her family and found names like Espinoza, Israel, Salinas, and a great aunt who said her grandmother spoke Ladino, the hybrid Spanish-Hebrew dialect.

Three years ago, Carrasco and her husband decided to leave the Messianic congregation; last year, they formally converted to Judaism in what they called a “return ceremony.”

“People would tell us, `You don’t have to do it,’ but we just love it and want to learn and want to do it,”she said. “It doesn’t matter if you call it a conversion or a return. What matters is once you go in the (conversion) water, you’re going to come out a different person.”

Others, like Rabbi Stephen Leon of (Conservative) Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, see helping people like the Carrascos as a kind of divine mission.

“God said to me, `I cannot bring back the 6 million who were killed in the Holocaust. But there was another group before that who are alive in much larger numbers than Holocaust survivors because it’s been 500 years, generation after generation after generation. Their souls are still alive,” he said. “God told me, `You have to do something about it.’”

I believe all Jews should do something about it by trying to reach out to non-Jews and interest them in reading Jewish books or visiting Israel.