By Bonita Nathan Sussman
I recently returned from Nicaragua where I helped organize the conversion of 114 people. About half of the people claim descendance from Anousim (Jews forced to convert after the Inquisition); the other half had been Christians who may or may not have Jewish ancestry and are now following Chassidic traditions. One man is the son of a Holocaust survivor. A few experiences stand out in my mind.
One elderly woman was especially memorable. She was ill and wanted to die as a Jew. As conversions in Nicaragua are impossible to come by, this was her only chance. After the required interview, she asked the Bet Din (members of the rabbinical court) if they would allow her to convert and go to the mikveh, the ritual bath that concludes conversion. After discussion, they agreed. The next day the elderly woman appeared with her home health attendant, clean and ready to immerse. She was put at the head of the line. I asked to serve this one time as the “mikveh lady,” the attendant who witnesses the immersion, testifies to the Bet Din that it occurred properly, and recites the blessings for the convert to repeat.
The woman entered the mikveh area with her home health attendant. The aide helped her undress on the side of the mikveh. I watched her frail, naked body slowly descend the steps into the water. She had very long hair and I tried to explain how to hold it down under the water and then let go of it. The first time she tried, her head didn’t go under. The aide, who was previously coached on the rules of immersion, understood that she had to do it again. The woman tried for the second time; this time the aide pushed her down. “Kosher,” I screamed so the Bet Din could hear me. She recited the blessing after me and immersed a second time. By this time, I was farklempt, choked up. I began the Shehecheyanu blessing for her to repeat and messed it up. Oy!
I finally got it right, and she repeated it. Coming out of the mikveh after her third immersion, the woman gave me a high five. Her face glowed. It reminded me of the prayer during the Avodah section of the Yom Kippur service. When the High Priest exited the Holy of Holies, it says, “His face shone like a groom coming out of his chuppah (wedding canopy).”
Another memorable event concerns the 24 Jewish weddings that took place after the conversions. Before I left for Nicaragua, I went shopping. On one of my shopping trips for all kinds of paraphernalia, including pens, paper clips, Shabbat candles, and plastic wine glasses, I saw a pack of fake diamond earrings that cost 99 cents for 20 pairs. I bought the pack and threw it into my baggage, hoping to remember it. As it turned out, I did remember.
While the brides were waiting, I noticed that some had no earrings. I took out the pack and began to pass the earrings around. There were smiles on their faces when the brides put them in each other’s ears, and big smiles when they looked at themselves and felt more beautiful than before. It was a small gesture that made all the hard work and months of planning worthwhile.
In the last 100 years, Jews have endured the Holocaust, the destruction of old Jewish communities in Arab lands, and the rebuilding of a Jewish homeland. I believe we are entering a new era of rebuilding the Jewish people. Today, the vital interest in Judaism lies in Africa, South America, and India.
For Jews, this is an invitation to become part of this exciting new development.