In Recife Brazil, over 400 people with Sephardic Jewish ancestry have undergone Orthodox conversions to Judaism. “Twenty years ago, the return to Judaism was a dream. Now it’s simply our reality,” said Jefferson Martins dos Santos, president of Recife’s Aboab de Fonseca synagogue, one of the two new congregations. Over the past decade, more than a dozen congregations like it have been established across Brazil’s north.
Members of these new communities call themselves “bnei anusim” —“children of the forcibly converted” from Judaism to Christianity. The ≠Brazilian state of Pernambuco for a while had been a haven for many Portuguese and Spanish Jews because it was controlled by the relatively tolerant Dutch from 1630 to 1654.
But when the Dutch left, their colony was taken over by Portugal, which enforced the Inquisition. Many Sephardic Jews fled with the Dutch to the Netherlands, and one shipload landed in New Amsterdam.
While many Jews left by 1655, many others stayed and continued to practice Judaism in secret, becoming crypto-Jews. But their families became Catholic as the centuries passed. Still, in villages in northern Brazil, some Jewish customs prevailed, including covering mirrors for seven days at a deceased person’s home.
Some bnei anusim investigated their ancestry because of these strange family customs. Others, like the president of the Association of Sephardic Jews of Pernambuco, discovered their Jewish origins through genealogical research.
Many families in northern Brazil for generations have known of their Sephardic roots, said Haim Amsalem, an Orthodox rabbi and former Knesset member from Israel who has converted many bnei anusim. “But the advent of the internet and social media changed everything, it lifted the taboo.”
Some, like 55-year-old Simone Azoubel, learned of their Jewish ancestry from a dying grandmother, Raquel, who asked on her deathbed in 1999 to be buried with her ancestors at a Jewish cemetery — disclosing a secret that had stayed under wraps for two generations.
Her grandmother’s funeral at Recife’s Jewish cemetery led to Azoubel’s conversion. Azoubel says her family first fled Portugal to Turkey, arriving in Brazil in the 19th century. She and some of her relatives are now active members of the Jewish community of Recife.
Since 2016, Amsalem, a former leader of the Israeli Orthodox Shas movement, has traveled five times to Brazil, converting about 100 people on each visit. Amsalem’s converts completed a conversion process in Brazil under the supervision of Gilberto Venturas, another Orthodox rabbi. Many others have undergone Reform or Conservative conversions.
The Amsalem conversions were the first large-scale series of conversions ever performed in Brazil. They followed decades of outreach work by the Shavei Israel group and Isaac Essoudry, a Recife Jew who died last year who served as a spiritual leader for many seeking to reconnect to Judaism.
Recognition for the bnei anusim remains an issue inside Brazil’s Jewish communities. They do not go to the city’s Chabad synagogue, where some converted bnei anusim say they feel unwelcome. Nor do they integrate easily with other Jewish communities, including the relatively receptive Reform community.
“Generally we’re at a phase where many bnei anusim feel most comfortable in communities made up of people like them,” said dos Santos Ximenes, the Sephardic association president. Recife’s tightly knit Ashkenazi Jewish community is made up predominantly of well-to-do businesspeople and professionals. Bnei anusim communities are more diverse socio-economically.
For all the things that set them apart, Recife’s Jewish communities are nonetheless growing closer together over time, said Sonia Sette, the president of the Jewish Federation of Pernambuco. “We don’t know the consequences of this phenomenon,” she said of the return of the bnei anusim, “because we’re still seeing it unfold.”
But amid assimilation, emigration and apathy by many local Jews in the Jewish community here, “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, the majority of the Jews here will be made up of bnei anusim.”
How did so many Jews end up in the Catholic Church? In 1391 there were anti-Jewish riots in several Spanish cities. Thousands of Jews were forcibly baptized. The Church viewed these baptisms as valid because the Spanish Jews had freely chosen baptism over death, unlike Jews in France and Germany during the first and second crusades, who chose to kill themselves rather than be baptized.
Over the next three generations there were additional riots that led to more forcible baptisms. Of course, Jews forced to be Christians didn’t stop believing in Judaism, but they had to practice, and teach their children, in secret. The Church knew this but thought that all Marrano (as secret Jews were called) children and grandchildren would be indoctrinated in the true faith and become believers. This did not happen.
In 1480 the Inquisition began holding trials in Spain. Over the next two centuries thousands would be tried/tortured, and imprisoned or executed. In 1492 all unbaptized Jews in Spain were exiled. Over 100,000 Jews left Spain, most of them going to Portugal. In 1497, they were expelled from Portugal, but first all their children were forcibly baptized, so parents who didn’t want to lose their children had to remain and freely choose baptism.
Decades later many secret Jews, or their children, found freedom in the new world. When the Inquisition was established in Lima (1570) and in Mexico City (1571) secret Jews fled to all parts of central and south America to escape.
South Americans who are drawn to Jews and Judaism probbebly have a Jewish soul from one of these ancestors. (see: A History of the Marranos by Cecil Roth)
Millions of Spanish and Portuguese speakers are descendants of Jews who were forcibly baptized during the 15th century. Many of these people have Jewish souls and are now returning to the Jewish people. How would one know if he or she could be one of them?
Signs of a Jewish soul.
1- You like to ask questions? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t seem to have a problem with this view.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You could not believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus wouldn’t go to Heaven.
3- You found you related well to Jewish people you met at work or at school even though they were culturally different from your own family.
4- When you first learned about the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than did other members of your own family.
5- When you started to learn about Judaism the ideas and values seemed reasonable and the traditions and heritage seemed attractive. You felt that at last you were coming home.
If most of these statements apply to you, you probably have a Jewish soul. If you can find a possible Jewish ancestor you definitely have a Jewish soul (see the chapter on Reincarnation in “God, Sex and Kabbalah” by Rabbi Allen S. Maller)