How Exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews are Returning Home to Israel

Shayna Rehberg gives tour to visiting Bnei Anusim of 16th century Sephardic village excavated at Livnot U'Lehibanot (Zefat).
Shayna Rehberg gives tour to visiting Bnei Anusim of 16th century Sephardic village excavated at Livnot U’Lehibanot (Zefat).

By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman

Sonya Loya never felt Catholic, it was Judaism she was drawn to.

In the 1990s, the New Mexico-native, while in her late 30s, discovered her family’s hidden secret, “I found out my ancestors were Jews forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition,” she said.

Loya traced her family line to a rabbinic dynasty in Spain dating back to 1430. Since then, she has delved into the Jewish religion. At her first Shabbat dinner, she witnessed the woman of the house lighting Shabbat candles, which sparked something inside her.

“That was what my grandma used to do,” Loya said. “The dreams I had had begun to finally make sense.”

When she shared her discovery with her parents and asked for their blessing to convert back to Judaism, not only were they supportive, but her father said he’d known since he was 6 that he was Jewish.

“His uncle … came back from liberating the [Nazi] camps and told his mother and brothers it was still not safe to be a Jew,” Loya said. “They swore my father to secrecy at that time, he held onto that secret for 64 years.”

Today, Loya runs travel tours to Israel for Bnei Anusim (a term for the descendants of forced Sephardi Jewish converts to Christianity) from the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities.

“There is such a longing to reconnect to my people Israel and to the land of my forefathers,” she said.

Around the world, there are an estimated 100 million to 150 million Bnei Anusim, according to Ashley Perry, president of Reconectar (Spanish and Portuguese for “reconnect”) and director general of the relatively new Israeli Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Communities. He was advisor to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from April 2009 – January 2015.

The Spanish Jewish community was regarded as one of the strongest and most powerful until Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella ushered in the Spanish Inquisition, which lasted for centuries, forcing conversion to Christianity, along with persecution and expulsion. Some 200,000 people were forcibly converted between 1491 into the 16th century.

Reconnecting with Judaism

For today’s descendants of Jews forced to convert, the group Reconectar provides them with personalized tools to explore, learn and connect with Judaism, the Jewish community and Israel. It also helps communities and organizations with this process.

An individual fills out a questionnaire on the group’s website, including an explanation of why they would like to connect. Then the group responds by linking them with the right resources. Since the site’s recent launch, 300,000 people have visited Reconectar, of which 14 percent said they self-identify as Jewish. Another 30 percent said they’re aware of their ancestry and want to know more.

“There are those who want to formally convert and become a part of the Jewish community and others who are just exploring, and everything in between,” explained Perry, who lives in Israel and is simultaneously bringing together politicians, diplomats, academics and heads of Jewish organizations to embrace the cause.

Why the passion?

Perry is dedicated to this cause as “It is a moral, ethical and even halakhic imperative,” noting that many great rabbinical figures, who ruled on the Jewish status of people forced to convert, determined they were still Jewish.

He said reconnecting Bnei Anusim with Judaism could have many benefits for today’s Jewish community, which faces challenges including anti-Semitism, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, diplomatic disputes, shrinking affiliation and assimilation.

“We are taking a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach through the people,” he added.

Until 2008, Jay Sanchez was living in what he calls “blissful ignorance,” until he discovered that he’s likely a descendant of Spanish and Portuguese Jews on his mother’s side.

Sanchez embarked on a standard ancestral search when he learned his mother’s maiden name, Dorta, was associated with a small number of families spread predominantly throughout the Canary Islands.

“I found references to more and more Dortas, and each and every one of them was referred to as either a Jew or a New Christian, until the 1700s, by which time the Dortas seem to have assimilated,” he said.

Today, Sanchez’s bookshelves are packed with Jewish books, as he grapples with his Jewish roots.

Many thought the Ethiopian aliyah would be the last major influx of lost Jews into Israel, Loya said. But she believes the return of Jews from the Sephardic exile will be much larger, with Bnei Anusim moving to Israel from Cuba, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, India, South America, the Canary Islands and the Southwest United States.

“Our Spanish Jewish community has been lost and raped of its identity and the beauty of what Judaism is,” Loya said. “My goal is to get them home.”