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 in early last November 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 Protestant groups 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.
Although Latin America is home to more than 425 million Catholics – nearly 40% of the world’s total Catholic population, identification with Catholicism has declined throughout the region, according to a major new Pew Research Center survey that examines religious affiliations, beliefs and practices in 18 countries plus Puerto Rico
From 1900 through the 1960s, at least 90% of Latin America’s population was Catholic. Today, the Pew Research survey shows, only 69% of adults across the region identify as Catholic.
In nearly every country surveyed, the Catholic Church has experienced net losses from religious switching, as many Latin Americans have joined evangelical Protestant churches. For example, roughly one-in-four Nicaraguans, one-in-five Brazilians and one-in-seven Venezuelans are former Catholics..
Much of the movement away from Catholicism and toward Protestantism in Latin America has occurred in the span of a single lifetime. Indeed, in most of the countries surveyed, at least a third of current Protestants were raised in the Catholic Church, and half or more say they were baptized as Catholics.
As these new Protestants 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.
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 convert to Judaism, 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 return to Judaism 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.’”
The big question is: will some people people in the established Jewish community reach out and encourage these Jewish self-identifiers to formally become Jewish; or will the Jewish community continue to avoid out reach to non-Jews?
Perhaps this year’s Seder should include a serious talk about the non-Jewish son or daughter who does not know how to fit into the established Jewish community; and needs an insider to help him, her, or them become a welcomed part of the People of Israel. It is our duty to invite them in!
This generation of Jewish leaders has the opportunity to encourage these self identified Jews to enter the Jewish people through non-Orthodox conversions. Their example could influence many more ex-Catholics new Protestants move all the way into Judaism.
If all self-identifying Jews were welcomed into the worldwide Jewish community without the traditional Orthodox suspicion of potential converts; it would be a fulfillment of the prophecy of 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)