Published On: Wed, Dec 2nd, 2015

Global Campaign Launches to Find Descendants of Portuguese Crypto-Jews

DNA studies conducted over the past decade, 20 percent of men in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain & Portugal) have Jewish genetic ancestry.

Jewish Sephardic Man holding Torah returning to Trancoso,   Portugal 370. (photo creditCourtesy Michael Freund)

 

The Jerusalem-based nonprofit Shavei Israel has launched a Portuguese-language e-book called “Do You Have Jewish Roots?” offering a practical guide to uncovering one’s Jewish ancestry. The unprecedented 109-page guide is aimed at assisting the millions of people in Brazil, Portugal and elsewhere who may have a long-lost Jewish lineage.

The Portuguese-language e-book, which is being distributed free of charge, is part of an ambitious and historic initiative by Shavei Israel to locate the descendants of Iberian Crypto-Jews (Bnei Anousim), or Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries during the Inquisition.

According to various genetic/DNA studies conducted over the past decade, 20 percent of men in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain & Portugal) have Jewish genetic ancestry. In Brazil, estimates are that 5-10 million people are descendants of Bnei Anousim. This phenomenon spans the world, potentially reaching millions more.

Shavei Israel recently launched a Spanish-language version of the guide and tens of thousands of people responded by downloading the book to discover if they are historically connected to the Jewish people.

“We are at the beginning of an historic turning point, one that will see millions of people throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world reconnecting with their Jewish roots, ” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, who co-authored the e-book.

“This book aims to get people to start asking questions about their identity, and it offers them a practical guide to undertake the process. There are millions of people throughout Spain, Portugal, and Central and South America who are descended from Iberian Jews, and we believe it is time for the Jewish people to reach out to them, ” Freund said.

Shavei Israel is currently the largest organization in the world today working with Bnei Anousim (whom historians refer to by the derogatory term “Marranos”), with emissaries serving in Spain, Portugal, southern Italy and Sicily, as well as Colombia, Brazil and El Salvador, all of whom work with thousands of Bnei Anousim. In addition, Shavei Israel is in touch with more than 80 communities of Bnei Anousim throughout Central and South America, regularly providing them with a range of educational and religious resources.

Freund collaborated on the e-book with Shavei’s educational director Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum. In addition to the printed copies being distributed through the organization’s worldwide network of emissaries, it is available for free, online, as an e-book (please see the attached image of the e-book cover).

In nine chapters, the book covers all the major questions someone at the beginning of their process of Jewish discovery might have. There are discussions on how to undertake a genealogical search (including how to access records from the Spanish Inquisition when and if appropriate), which surnames are most commonly Jewish in different parts of the world, plus information on “hidden” Jewish customs (such as candle lighting, mourning traditions, and the baking of challah), organized by geography and history.

“The effort that Shavei Israel has undertaken is, in a word, historic. The numbers of descendants of Bnei Anousim is vast. We believe that the total number exceeds tens of millions of people; their self-discovery as Jews can greatly impact and enrich the international Jewish community, ” says Freund. “Our mission is to support anyone who is in search of their Jewish ancestry and we are thrilled with the outpouring of interest, especially at a time when we are witnessing a resurgence in European anti-Semitism.”

It is the scope of this project that inspires Freund. “The history of the Jewish people has involved perseverance in the face of persecution over centuries, ” he said. “There are millions of non-Jews with Jewish ancestry. In many cases, their ancestors were torn away from us against their will, yet they bravely sought to preserve a connection to the Jewish people. We owe it to them and to their ancestors to reengage them and strengthen their bond with our people.”

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