Last week, a “Ceremony of Return” was held for seven descendants of Crypto-Jews who had traveled from around the world to participate. In his description of the event, guest speaker Adam Schwartz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix explained:
Many are descendants of families who were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition. These families were given the choice to convert, leave the country or risk being killed.
In many cases, those who fled to other countries confronted the same situation again and again as they resided in areas under the control of Spain and Portugal. This resulted in many taking their Jewish observance “underground.”
They tell stories of rituals that their families performed although they had little understanding of what the rituals meant (like lighting candles on Friday night). Later in their lives when they began to connect with the Jewish community, they started to realize the importance of these observances.
In the U.S., Jews are often stereotyped as Ashkenazi descendents of Eastern Europeans. The reconnection of crypto-Jews to their heritage is a reminder of the diversity of paths that leads individuals to Jewish life. At JOI, this is one of the foundations of the Big Tent Judaism coalition: The idea that there is room in the Jewish community for more than one experience, history, and culture.
The growing voice of the crypto-Jewish community should also serve as a reminder of the complexity of Jewish identity. For the members of the “B’nei Anusim Hispanic Sephardi” who participated in the ceremony, a connection to Jewish life outlasted persecution, relocation, submerged practice, and a modern Jewish community often unwelcoming to those whose Jewish journeys don’t follow an expected path. For those of us involved with interfaith and intercultural families, this should remind us of our obligation to show great care and respect for the religious heritage of every person. Despite our impulse, at times, to reduce religious belonging to a particular practice or background, religious heritage runs deep and resists simplification.
At the end of his article, Schwartz observes the way that taking part in the ceremony challenged the idea that the modern Jewish path is one of disengagement:
One by one, each individual received a certificate and Hebrew name. Each participant was given the opportunity to say a few words, and it was wonderful to see how touched they each appeared. This ceremony helped them right a wrong that had been done to their families hundreds of years ago.
Over the years there have been numerous studies showing a growing distance between individuals and their Judaism. We hear over and over again about how young people are disconnected from their heritage. Yet, on this Sunday afternoon, I was with a group who were moved to tears as they were welcomed back to the Jewish community.
I hope we can all find ways to embrace those who have returned to Judaism, and may we learn from them how wonderful it is to be Jewish and to be part of the community.
What Schwartz is describing is the experience of having his own Jewish connection deepened by witnessing someone engaging from a perspective other than his own. Far from being a disadvantage, one of the most profound benefits of a diverse community is the opportunity to be denaturalized and to look again and find extraordinary what had been ordinary before. We at JOI hope that crypto-Jews continue to find a welcoming place in the Jewish community and encounter increasing respect for complex paths to Jewish life.