Editor’s Note: We received feedback about an earlier post (“Freund’s Business of Farming Jews,” March 23) from Michael Freund, who was a subject of the piece. We asked the author, David Ramírez to read and respond to Freund. We are publishing both of their responses below.
In a recent article on this website (“Freund’s Business of Farming Jews,” March 23), David Ramírez made a number of deceitful accusations regarding the work of the organization I founded, Shavei Israel.
Indeed, it brought to mind the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s observation that, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
It is in that spirit that I want to clear the air, because Mr. Ramirez has done a disservice both to my organization and to the many Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”) that we have helped.
Ramirez asserted that Shavei Israel performed conversions in Portugal of Bnei Anousim seeking to return to the Jewish people. This is simply untrue. Shavei Israel does not convert anyone. We prepare those interested in return or conversion, but we do not have our own rabbinical court.
Second – Ramirez claimed he “directly questioned” me regarding a number of issues. Needless to say, I have never spoken to Mr. Ramirez nor met him, and I checked my email going back 4 years and have no record of any exchange with him.
The fact is that Shavei Israel has assisted hundreds of Bnei Anousim from Spain, Portugal and South America. We have emissaries serving in various communities in Europe, convene annual seminars in Iberia and organize a group visit of Bnei Anousim to Israel each summer. In addition, we run a Spanish and Portuguese-language conversion and return institute in Jerusalem.
Our goal is to strengthen the Bnei Anousim, whether culturally, intellectually or religiously. We do not seek to impose any agenda or belief system. Participants in our programs range from atheist to Orthodox, and we aim to meet their needs as they understand them.
I run Shavei Israel on a volunteer basis, and personally cover more than half of the organization’s budget. I do this because I believe the Jewish people have a historical, moral and religious responsibility to reach out to the Bnei Anousim and facilitate their return.
There is so much work still to be done. It is unfortunate that rather than investing his energies in a positive direction, Mr. Ramirez prefers to defame those who are on the front-lines of this important struggle.
I invite him to let go of his baseless hatred, and instead roll up his sleeves and get to work.
That, after all, is the Jewish way.
Michael Freund is the founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that seeks to strengthen the connection between the Jewish people and descendants of Jews around the world.
The Laws of Jewish status are finite. A Jew is always a Jew, no matter how far he or she has strayed from Rabbinic Tradition. My work for the past twelve years – for which I have abandoned my corporate career – has concentrated on clarifying how this applies to the descendants of Sephardim who were forced to convert to Catholicism. They hold the legal status of “Anusím.” These laws have been upheld by Sephardic rabbinic sages for the past 600 years, all the way up to the 20th century.
An “anús,” legal category for ANY Jew “forced” to abandon Jewish legal practice, is literally a Jew. According to some rabbinic opinions, the Anusím hold a higher status than a Jew free to observe Judaism within a Jewish community.
My work centers on communicating this information to Sephardi-Anusím, which has put me at odds with organizations that claim to help these Jews to “return” to Judaism.
At times, this has led me to confrontations with organizations, one of which is Michael Freund’s Shavei. I have corresponded with him in two different occasions since 2001 (see Freund.11.03.pdf). I also contribute regularly to the Saudades Yahoo Groups, a cyber-community where one shares Sephardic-Anusim information. My contributions are well-known within this community, and so are Michael Freund’s.
To say that Shavei does not do conversions is like saying that the Spanish Inquisition did not torture Jews, which in fact was done by the “Secular Arm” of the government. The charge is through association. In Jewish Law, the one who commits the transgression and that who leads the Jew to transgression (Mahtí et haRabím) are equally guilty, no matter who actually committed the crime.
The way Shavei regularly presents the story is misleading via the key operating word “return.” This word means different things for the Israeli government, the Israeli rabbinates, and for Jewish Law. None of these meanings meet.
If it is indeed “return” per Jewish Law which Shavei focuses on, then there should be no ritual immersion (tebiláh) involved at all. Jewish Law does not prescribe such process either for a former heretic (meshumad) or a coerced-Jew (anús). (Click here)
In the Belmonte case, where Freund was involved was the second one. I never said he was involved in the first case of conversion.
In a letter written by Rabbi Birnbaum to families in Ecuador, it shows the link between Shavei and conversion:
“In my name and that of my partner Michael Freund . . . I tried to present the possibility of Conversion in Ecuador for the group or the families.” [my translation]
I stand corrected that R. Birnbaum is Uruguayan.
Freund claims that I engage in LaShón haRáh (evil speech) yet the bulk of Shavei’s published materials misleads the public and the Sephardi-Anusím, and it involves several issues of transgressions in Jewish Law too numerous and complex to put here in writing. Announcing in public the actions of recurring Jewish sinners is not LaShón haRáh.
In closing, my only wish is for organizations like Shavei to be transparent about their real motives, and what they are actually doing, one of which is not treating Sephardi-Anusim as Jews, but as Gentile-Converts to Judaism.
In Jewish Law, Gentile-Converts do not have parents, do not have a past.
This is indeed a sadder end than forced-Catholic conversion itself.
David Ramírez is a freelance writer and researcher on Sephardic scholarship. He regularly serves as a consultant to lay and rabbinic scholars.