Why warn away potential converts to Judaism today?

Most of the thousands of non-Jews who convert to Judaism every year in the U.S. and Canada are surprised to learn that a non-Jew who wants to join the Jewish people and become Jewish will be welcomed; but only after being warned that Jews have often been oppressed and persecuted.

Even people who have discovered a Jewish ancestor, and desire to return to their Jewish heritage, should carefully read about what happened to a Portugese army officer who, more than 80 years ago, discovered he was descended from Marranos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity as a result of the Inquisition). The events, related by Henrique Zimmerman in an Israeli newspaper, HaAretz 2/17/12, are as follows:

I (Henrique Zimmerman) was born and raised in Porto, Portugal. One of the most significant places in the lives of the local Jews was the neighborhood synagogue, impressive and grand, but nearly empty. The Makor Haim Synagogue was built in the 1930s by Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basto.

Whenever I would ask about him, I would be told only that Barros Basto, born in 1887, was a World War I hero who fought in Belgium. Before that he had belonged to the group that toppled the monarchy in Portugal and founded the republic in 1910, when he himself raised the flag of the new government. The republic was critical of the Church and carefully guarded religious freedom.

In the 1920s Barros Basto learned from his grandfather that he had Jewish roots. In the light of the new religious freedom in Portugal, he decided to return to his forefathers’ people and religion. He went to Tangier, Morocco to convert.

The orthodox rabbis at the local rabbinical court, due to their objection to conversion, tried to get Barros Basto to convert in Algeria. Barros Basto replied that he would not leave without completing the process, which he believed was merely a technicality since he already felt like a Jew. He was eventually converted in Tangier.

When he got back to his homeland he set about establishing a Jewish congregation for the first time in over 400 years – the first since the expulsion of Jews from Portugal. He built and founded a school, a community newspaper, and our synagogue, Makor Haim.

When other Portugese with Jewish ancestors heard about Barros Basto they began streaming to the place. “We too are Jews, even though our family converted to Christianity following the expulsion from Portugal in 1497,” they told him.

Encouraged by the new congregants, Barros Basto began traveling all over northern Portugal in search of lost Jews. And he found them. They were amazed by the Jewish captain. “Let us build a community openly, there is nothing to fear. We are a republic,” he told them.

Thus it was that hundreds of young people joined him and came to the school he founded in Porto, where they studied Judaism and Hebrew. Graduates of the school he founded became teachers and went back to their hometowns to teach their Marrano neighbors.

In 1928 Portugal was rocked by another revolution that restored to the Church the power it had during the days of the monarchy. The priests did not look kindly upon the new movement that was trying to bring thousands of Marranos back to the Jewish people.

Furthermore, with the change of government, the Portuguese attitude toward the country’s Jews in general also changed. Once, at a military ceremony dedicated to WWI heroes, somebody declared publicly that Barros Basto should not be given a medal because of his religion.

Tensions worsened in the 1930s, when a fascist government arose in Portugal. In 1937 Barros Basto was put on trial in two cases, one civil and the other military, and was found guilty of participating in circumcision ceremonies.

After he was found guilty, the government stripped him of his military rank and repossessed his pension. Inacio Steinhardt, an Israeli who emigrated from Portugal, wrote a biography about this Portuguese Dreyfus.

In 1961, Barros Basto died, far from the spotlight. Inacio Steinhardt, an Israeli who emigrated from Portugal, wrote a biography about this Portuguese Dreyfus.

On April 25, 1974, young army officers led a velvet revolution that removed the dictator Marcelo Caetano. In 1997, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of Portugal’s Jews, then-Knesset Speaker Dan Tichon visited Portugal. That same year, 1997, a synagogue called Beit Eliyahu was inaugurated in the town of Belmonte in northern Portugal, and many local residents apparently converted to Judaism.

Steinhardt describes a movement to return to Judaism that is currently on the rise among descendants of the Marranos – not only in Portugal, but in the United States, South Africa and other places to which Portuguese migrated. He says there are websites and online blogs devoted to this subject, and that some descendants of the Marranos have also come to Israel to convert or live.

I have been involved in a similar movement of return to Judaism that is occurring in Eastern Europe and especially in Poland, where thousands of Poles have discovered they had a Jewish ancestor in previous generations. Many of them seek to learn about Judaism and perhaps return to Jewish life in a revived Jewish community.

The promise of democracy and religious Freedom in Portugal failed in the 1930’s. Let us pray that this promise does not fail again in our generation. The Reform Progressive movement in Warsaw-Beit Warszhwa, and in small congregations throughout Poland-Beit Polska; welcomes everyone interested in learning more about Jewish music, culture and religion. For those interested in becoming Jewish; you have now been warned and you are welcome to join us.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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