Just how big is the Jewish community? Most surveys put the number somewhere around 13 million worldwide. But that’s only counting the people who know they’re Jewish. What about all those who have Jewish roots but were forced, at some point in history, to choose conversion or death? That’s the story behind Crypto-Jews – Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Catholicism nearly 500 years ago but kept some semblance of their Judaism as they migrated to across the globe.
Today, there is a “steady trickle of Hispanics in the Southwest, from Juarez to Texas to New Mexico, are discovering their Jewish roots,” according to an article from the JTA. And one synagogue in El Paso, Congregation B’nai Zion, is doing everything they can to make sure those seeking guidance find a welcoming and open environment.
Rabbi Stephen Leon of B’nai Zion has helped start a Crypto-Jew learning center in El Paso with the goal of bringing “awareness to the Jewish and general public about the Inquisition and Crypto-Jews.” He has also made sure those in the area who want to return to Judaism have the tools and resources to do so. This past Shavuot – as the Jewish community read the story of Ruth, the first official convert to Judaism – Rabbi Leon oversaw the bar and bat mitzvahs of a number of families who have not only discovered their Jewish roots, but have made a commitment to now lead a Jewish life.
Rabbi Leon also believes the Crypto-Jews (also called Marranos, Anusim, and Conversos) will play a key role in the future of Judaism:
With Hispanics being the fastest-growing population and the Jews constantly concerned about their diminishing population, Leon says the Jewish community should welcome those Hispanics who want to explore their Jewish ancestry.
“I think the Anusim are the only answer,” he said. “They are returning one way or another.”
The only answer? I don’t know if we would go that far. But just like our Big Tent Judaism initiative, Rabbi Leon is certainly helping by creating an environment that supports and advocates for all those who would cast their lot with the Jewish people, regardless of prior background or knowledge. And other synagogues are reaching out to this group - JOI has been working with the synagogue Ahabat Torah, who has set up an Anusim center in San Jose, CA. This philosophy – whether applied to Crypto-Jews, intermarried families, or anyone on the periphery – will help secure a more vibrant Jewish future.