INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON BNEI ANOUSIM CO-SPONSORED BY KULANU (2016)

image:

Kulanu’s Boutique features an Aish Chai
Lapel Pin, designed by Deborah Potash
Brodie of Dor L’Dor.  Depicting life (Chai)
coming out of fire (Aish), it celebrates the return of Anousim to Judaism.

Editor’s Note: This past September 2016 Kulanu’s Vice President, Bonita Nathan Sussman, was invited to speak in Florida at The Institute for Sefardi and Anousim Studies’ international conference, Reinvigorating Shared Latino-Jewish Roots and Heritage. We would like to share with our readers Bonita Sussman’s address on behalf of Kulanu.

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It is a great honor for Kulanu to be a co-sponsor of this international conference on Anousim. I thank Salomon Buzaglo for including Kulanu in this worthy endeavor and Ilan Goldstein for introducing me to Salomon. In honor of this occasion, we have updated our Anousim page on the Kulanu web site. As is custom among Jews to give kavod (honor) to their rabbis and teachers, I gratefully acknowledge Professor Tudor Parfitt who has introduced me to the academic study of Anousim and other returning communities. There are many people in the audience who have been close friends of Kulanu for many years, and I beg their pardon as much of this may seem repetitive.

 

Salman Rushdie wrote about the story of his hiding because of the Iranian Fatwa on his life in his novel Joseph Anton, A Memoir.  Speaking of himself he wrote “This unhoused, exiled Satan was perhaps the heavenly patron of all exiles, all unhoused people, all those who were torn from their place and left floating, half-this, half-that, denied the rooted person’s comforting, defining sense of having solid ground beneath their feet.” This is a gathering of those whose forebears were a group that over time, millions of times over, lived lives similar to Rushdie, in hiding and under a different sort of Fatwa.

 

I was asked to speak about what Kulanu does for Anousim. Kulanu is an organization founded 22 years ago to support emerging, isolated and returning Jewish communities around the world. Emerging communities lived Christian, Muslim and other lives before they found Judaism as what they call “the true religion” which spoke to their hearts and their true selves. Their histories and beliefs do not include stories of their Jewish origins.

 

Examples of emerging Kulanu communities are the Jewish communities of Uganda, Cameroon, and Cote d’Ivoire. Isolated communities are Jewish communities that were established long ago, have few Jews remaining, and are far from Jewish resources.  Suriname, founded in the 1600’s by Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and Nicaragua, founded at the turn of the last century, are two such isolated communities. Returning communities either are communities whose histories, often oral, claim to be descendants of Lost Tribes, such as the Bene Ephraim in India or the Tribe of Dan in Liberia. Bnei Anousim, many more in number than the Lost Tribes, are another category of returning Jewish communities. The return of Anousim are part of a worldwide trend and  new phenomenon which is challenging established Jewish norms and ways of thinking.

 

Kulanu is a volunteer organization with a budget of $300,000. It is multi-denominational in that it addresses Jewish needs across the Jewish spectrum of ideologies. People have asked me, “What is the main way that Kulanu supports communities?” I always say that we validate their journeys. We tell them that what they are doing is amazing, important, and is changing the course of Jewish history and the definitions of Jewish peoplehood and what it means to be Jewish. We say that the worldwide Jewish community wants them, needs them, and loves them, and that we appreciate what they are doing. We let them know that they clarify for us what it means to be Jewish and that they are on the cutting edge of this definition.

 

While this may seem obvious, individuals and communities who are struggling to create their Jewish identities often lack real models on how to do it; they may feel isolated and are often shunned by family and friends. Kulanu volunteers come around and exclaim, WOW! We are often the only ones who listen to their stories, publish their work, link them to others, connect them to resources, believe in them and take them seriously.

 

Kulanu sends Jewish supplies, siddurim, tefillin, and mezuzot to Bnei Anousim communities and others. When we can, we donate Sifrei Torahs to them. We send teachers. Sometimes we set up Skype classes. We send them to study in Israel. We publish articles about our visits to their communities. We share their photographs and videos. We have had, over time, hundreds of inquiries for information from Bnei Anousim; we network with them. We have funded projects in Latin American countries. In 2015, we gave money to three Bnei Anousim communities in Brazil for tefillin, siddurim and to build a mikvah, to Guatemala for Jews to attend a Jewish conference in the United States and to print machzorim, to Nicaragua for siddurim for two communities, to Peru to help build a bima and buy siddurim, and for tefillin to be shared in Columbia.

 

Currently we have two people on Kulanu’s board who assist the Bnei Anousim communities in their return to Judaism, Daneel Schachter and Rabbi Barbara Aiello. Daneel--with his backpack--single-handedly is helping to develop many new communities of young people with Converso roots.

 

Daneel writes that “Kulanu has helped many Anousim communities that otherwise would have received no support from the Jewish communities in their home country or from abroad. Often times in their own country, these emerging groups are viewed as menacing to the ‘mainstream’ community, who fear them for their previous religious affiliations, racial makeup, and often lower social class than the existing Jewish community.  By bringing Jewish activists, teachers, rabbis and cantors to volunteer in the emerging communities across Latin America, Kulanu is able to show them that their paths to Judaism, whether proven as the descendants of Marranos or not, are important to world Jewry. By helping these communities network amongst themselves, and slowly but surely, work towards inclusion in the mainstream communities (where possible), we validate their search to be part of something greater.”

 

Rabbi Barbara, known as the “Radio Rabbi,” has helped to develop the Jewish community in southern Italy. She writes, “As a bat anusim (daughter of the forced ones), I have personal experience with this tragedy.  My own ancestors, Spanish Jews, were forced to flee Toledo, Spain, then Portugal, then Sicily and finally flee to the mountains of Calabria to escape persecution, arrest or death. In fact, my great grandmother, Angela Rosa Grande, was a direct descendant of Matheo de Grande, a neofite or ‘New Christian,’ whose property and goods were confiscated by the Inquisition authorities in the Sicilian town of Naro. The family was arrested for ‘Judaizing.’ Finally they settled in the tiny mountain village called Serrastretta, but given their frightening experiences, they chose to continue their clandestine observance. For centuries they lit candles on Friday evening, abstained from eating pork and, when a loved one died, they sat on low chairs and covered the mirrors throughout the house which they practice till today.”

 

Thanks to Rabbi Barbara, today the Jews in Calabria hold services and classes and have two new chavurot in Sardinia and Matera that have received donated Torah scrolls. They are egalitarian and open to interfaith families. Rabbi Barbara explained, “We do not force the non-Jewish partner to make conversion--our personal histories that date back to Inquisition times affirm that forced conversions are always problematic and never appropriate.” About her serving on the Kulanu board,  she says, “I am delighted to be part of this incredibly strong worldwide initiative. Now I don’t feel so isolated and alone.”  And of course, Rabbi Steven Leon, sitting next to me, whom I’ve met for the first time here, has retired from the Kulanu board after many years of service.

 

image: Bonita Nathan Sussman

Bonita Nathan Sussman
(PHOTO BY JOSHUA KRISTAL)

While each email we receive is different from another, here are some testimonies that I personally have received from Bnei Anousim (with names omitted):

 

“My name is Y.M. I live in Denver, Colorado. I have been studying Torah for about 20 years now. For the last 5 years I have felt the desire to study nothing but Tanakh with rabbis from the internet and some that I have visited. The teachings at the beginning I had were from Messianic teachers and I knew that there was much more than what they were teaching me. My wife and children and I are ready to do the conversion to real Judaism....Now, I have several groups of people that I have been teaching Torah and Halacha; in Colorado, about 40, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, about 35, in Managua, Nicaragua, about 25. I am asking if you can convert us?”


Here is another message from a member of the Beth Moshe community in Mexico City that has 20 members and wants to return to Judaism. The community chose this name because at the time of the Inquisition, the Jewish people were punished because they practiced the Mosaic law or they were from the Mosaic faith:

 

Shavua tov, Dear Bonita. By the way, Bonita is beautiful Spanish word :) We are a little group of people who love Judaism; each of us has a personal history, I work for Judaica store here in Mexico City, and because of it I know a lot people interested in Judaism. I make relationship with each of them, and somehow I connected all my friends interested in Judaism, and we began to celebrate the festivities.

 

“We consider ourselves Bnei Anusim. For example, in my family, the surname of the mother of my dad is ‘Palestino’ (Spanish word for Palestine). That they  called themselves Palestino is dated from 1600, at records of New Spain (Mexico). Another family of our group, they have the surname Izaac (Spanish word for Isaac). We practice the Spanish Portuguese ritual. We sing Ladino songs.  But we know we must convert to Judaism. It’s for that we connect with you. We want your help. We want to open a little place at Mexico City, for Anousim people. I have a page of Israel and Judaism news, in Spanish. That page is reached by 2 million people a week, firstly from Mexico and Latin America. And it has 100,000 followers. We know there are many people here in Mexico who want to return to Judaism but don’t know how. We know your organization helps people who want to be Jews.”

 

A word on Kulanu and Nicaragua: One of the communities that Kulanu helped develop and where I have been personally involved is Communidad Israelita de Nicaragua. The official community consisted of a remnant of the pre-civil war community of Jews of Eastern and Central European origin. Along with this core group were the children and grandchildren of Jewish men and Nicaraguan women and a number of Bnei Anousim families who were both called participants rather than members. The religious teacher of this group was a man of Bnei Anousim origin, Carlos Peres, who had studied in various yeshivot in Israel and the United States.

 

With the help of BADATSLI (Bet Din Tzedek Latfustot Yisrael), the Rabbinical Court for the Diaspora, Kulanu arranged for the conversions of 28 participants, turning them into full members and immeasurably strengthening the community, and also performed 8 weddings, with chuppah and kiddushin. A bat mitzvah took place and three Jewish babies have been born since, the first three in over 50 years. Another group of Bnei Anousim that grew out of a listserve called Descendants of Marranos, whose members had previously been Messianic, moved toward Judaism and are now seeking to arrange their conversions. They are known as Comunidad Judía Sefaradí en Nicaragua. We also facilitated Reform conversions in Guatemala.

 

A word about Bet Din Tsedek Latfustot Yisrael, known as BADATSLI, which I mentioned earlier. A group of Halachic shomer Shabbat rabbis have joined forces to promote and help develop Jewish communities around the world. They serve as teachers, mara d’atras, and gather as a Bet Din to perform conversions. Please visit their newly-created website: rabbinicalcourtdiaspora.weebly.com.

 

Members have been involved with conversions of Anousim in Italy, Nicaragua and elsewhere. While the organization is independent, it works closely with Kulanu. In this context, I must mention the emerging Jewish community in Madagascar where, this past May, over 100 people underwent Orthodox conversions performed by BADATSLI and facilitated by Kulanu. Though not of Bnei Anusim origin, Madagascar Jews have chosen to identify with Sephardic culture and refer to themselves as Madagascar Sepharad.

 

A word about Kulanu’s work in El Salvador: Over the course of many years Kulanu funded a yearly Torah study program (Bet Midrash) for three months at a time in the city of Armenia, and a Hebrew school. It is a  community that considers itself to be Bnei Anousim and Orthodox. From this program a daily minyan was created which exists until this day. This group is presently working with Shavei Yisrael to ultimately make aliyah.

 

In looking toward future needs and directions, Kulanu hopes to fulfill the following in our Bnei Anousim communities: more Torahs donated, funding for siddurim, machzorim, mezuzot, funding for BADATSLI to continue its work of conversions, more academic study, more publicity and news coverage, and linkages with Israeli institutions to fund Torah study. But Kulanu’s main wish is to make this work part of the mainstream, to break barriers so that integration of all communities can begin, to find all Bnei Anousim a home, and to have them welcomed back with open arms.

 

As I conclude this journey into Kulanu’s work abroad, it is important to note, too, that Salman Rushdie’s exile finally ended. The fatwa was removed. It is my hope that the work Kulanu and others do to help the Bnei Anousim reintegrate into the worldwide Jewish community will end their exile.     

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