Since I began my career as a Jewish communal professional more than 20
years ago, I have had the good fortune to attend, and participate in,
some very meaningful programs connected to Jewish life. This past
Sunday was one such opportunity.
As president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix, I was
invited to speak at the "Ceremony of Return" sponsored by The
Association of Crypto Jews of the Americas. (see story here)
To prepare my remarks, I researched the background of Crypto Jews and
was amazed by what I discovered. 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
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.
Participating in the "Ceremony of Return" requires more than just a
statement that one is of Jewish ancestry. All who go through the
ceremony must be actively involved in Jewish life, including attendance
at services on Shabbat, celebrating major Jewish holidays, keeping
kosher, circumcision and immersion in the mikvah.
I arrived for the ceremony unsure of what to expect. I met Rabbi Yosef
Garcia and his wife, Yvonne, who are warm and caring people dedicated
to finding and reconnecting Crypto Jews with their Jewish roots and
There was a sense of nervousness and excitement as individuals began
entering the room. Friends and family members, some of whom had
previously participated in their own ceremony, joined with the seven
individuals who were returning to Judaism.
Rabbi Albert Plotkin also participated in the ceremony, and, following
our remarks, Rabbi Garcia led the group in reciting the Shema.
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 have always felt a deep connection and a positive feeling about my
Jewishness. Judaism has been a guide for me to have a full, rich and
meaningful life. In this intimate ceremony with a handful of people,
this feeling was reinforced.
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.
It was truly an honor for me to participate in this special ceremony,
as federation is an organization deeply committed to the principles on
which Jewish community is built.
As my family celebrates Shabbat this week, you can be certain that I
will be thinking about these new members of our community and hoping
and praying their Shabbat is full of happiness and blessing.
Adam Schwartz is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.