Nuevo: Gracias a Aryeh Ben Abraham Capella por la traducción en español
A few years back when news about a group of secret-Jews in Belmonte, Portugal, came to light, no one really took much notice. These secret Jews were thought to be the last descendants of Sephardi Jews forced to convert to Catholicism, and who had survived the onslaught of 300 years of Inquisition. This group fought an uphill battle with the local Portuguese Jewish communities, and the acidly unfriendly maze of the Israeli rabbinate, in order to gain some recognition.
Help did eventually come, but not without more pain. What had been a very cohesive community for nearly 500 years was suddenly divided between those who begrudgingly chose conversion under the guise of “return,” and those who did not because they thought conversion as an insult to their history, customs and Jewish status. The rabbis involved did not give any credence to their stories, the Jewish customs they had maintained, nor to their endogamic genealogies and practices. They were treated as Gentiles, and now being considered Gerim (converts to Judaism), which prevents them from marrying their own as they had been doing for 500 years.
Since then, a small synagogue was constructed with much sacrifice, a couple of nominally-trained rabbis have come and gone, and many Jewish on-lookers paraded Belmonte; many articles have given them accolades. But the community remained, and remains divided, their knowledge of Jewish Law null — to the point that they still they do not know their most basic Jewish responsibilities, and last I knew a dried-up mikveh was still without repair. The two most important “Jewish” activities is to beg for money to maintain the building, serve as poster boys for Zionist propaganda, and conveniently used for guilt-trips on the Portuguese government and its Church.
None of what you have read so far you will see reported in any newspaper, and unless you know people inside this community, and who can trust you enough to share their pain and shame, spectators at large would be completely unaware of this dismal picture, and think everything is rosy. This community has been hit so hard and so-hurt by the realities of institutional Jewry that they rather retrieve in silence, and hope for a better day.
Then comes Shavei Israel, which, back when it was still called Amishav, performed the second wave of unwarranted conversions on Belmonte’s “secret” Sephardim, and who took the golden opportunity to make them the poster-child of persecuted Spanish Jews.
Ever since, Shavei Israel has been trying to spin the Belmonte “success” in other places throughout Spain, Portugal, Latin America and the United States. Wherever there are Spanish or Portuguese speaking peoples, and some claim or rumors to a manifestation of “Crypto-Judaism,” Shavei makes it its responsibility to chime in.
Shavei Israel is an Israeli non-profit organization whose mission is to help “lost Jews” find “their way home.” In reality, it is a clearing house — with ties to the Israeli rabbinate — to convert any group of people, or individuals, who has philo-Jewish leanings and claims to be part of the People of Israel, however real or far-fetched these claims happen to be.
Rabbi Birnbaum, originally from Argentina, runs the clerical side of the converting operation, with Cottage Ulpan and all (now also available in Spanish). Shavei’s underlying philosophies, besides being overtly Zionist, seem to carry a messianic tone, whose end is to “force” the coming of the Messiah.
Key to this promotional enterprise, we have Mr. Michael Freund, a Ba’al Teshubáh (returnee) himself of Conservative Jewry parentage. Mr. Freund, a former Communication deputy for Netanyahu’s administration, is the Director of this organization. He serves as the face and voice of Shavei Israel, who utilizes all his useful media contacts to promote his organization freely through Israeli papers, mainly the Jerusalmen Post and Arutz Sheva.
If indeed Shavei Israel is truly helping the descendants of Spanish Jews, there is not much through which one can measure this claim. Most of their “returnees” are either kept off the public eye, they do not engage with anybody else besides Shavei, or simply disappear into anonymity.
A couple years back, when I directly questioned Mr. Freund about how they determined the Jewish status of these individuals, or what process they actually put them through, he completely avoided answering the question, and his only exit strategy was to say that everything was being handled by a “panel of experts.” No reason is given as to how his team is considered experts on the subject. The matter of Iberian Anusim is very intricate, determining status a very painstaking process.
Based on his answers too, I also realized the man does not know much about Jewish Law or the history of Anusim at any considerable depth, but in all fairness, he is a man of conviction. As the Public Relations professional that he is, he knows all too well not to answer things that will reveal his weaknesses or compromise the real story of his operations.
Another lingering question is, after all the advertising expenditures, where is all the money going? The Belmonte community to this day does not have a rabbi, and this has been so for at least three to four years. After the light and glitter, where is Shavei Israel’s help when Belmonte is in need?
The most recent string of these hero-like tale stories of “Marrano” survival is one published by the Jerusalem Post, in a column entitled “Fundamentally Freund.” This particular article discusses the majestic Oporto synagogue Mekor Hayyim, where Shavei set up shop not long ago.
Congregation Mekor Hayim was founded by former Portuguese Anusim under the guidance of Captain Barros Bastos over 70 years ago, with the generous contributions of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews of London and New York. Long before they had a building, Rabbi David deSola Pool z”l himself traveled to Portugal to take them their first Torah scroll in over 400 years. If one wants to gauge the quality of Jewish charity between the Zionists and Sephardim, one just has to compare the buildings of Belmonte and Mekor Hayim side-by-side.
After a brief period of hope, Congregation Mekor Hayyim went downhill due to a scandal launched by the government against Captain Barros Bastos, the apathy of Portuguese Anusím who never found the energy to become cohesively organized, and internal congregational squabbles between recent-Ashkenazi arrivals and its former Portuguese Anusím. For several decades, Mekor Hayyim remained empty and forgotten.
Now, Mekor Hayim has regained life once again, now as the perfect stage and center piece for Shavei’s more “legitimate Sephardi” operations and claims to saving the day.
God save them!
Mr. David Ramírez, a former Counselor to the Board of Directors for Ess Hayim – the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Houston (est. 2005) – is a recognized independent researcher on Sephardic history, development of halakhic thinking in the tradition of Maimónides, comparative studies in religion and philosophy. Before his transference to Houston, TX, in 2006, Mr. Ramírez had functioned as teacher of Judaism for the Sephardic synagogue OrVe Shalom (est. 1914), in the city of Atlanta, GA. Mr. Ramírez has had the opportunity to study under Rabbi Faur; he has participated in learning projects with Rabbi Bittón, former Chief Rabbi from South-America; and recently with Rabbi Oliveira, and Rabbi Lopes via Yahdut Sefarad, an Israeli non-profit organization for the promotion of rabbinic intellectual values. As a translator, Mr. Ramírez has collaborated with professors at Bar Ilan University, Netanya College, with directors at the Centro Educativo Sefaradí (Jerusalem) and he has been featured as a poet in the “Mentalities” journal. As a writer, David has been invited for cameo appearances at the Sephardic Update Newsletter, and currently some of his work has been featured at faur.derushapublishing.com. Born and raised in Mexico, Mr. Ramírez holds a BBA from Oglethorpe University, a music degree from Escuela Superior de Música de Monterrey, and is an avid reader on the history of New Spain and Spanish literature.