|Far-flung communities seek
place in the Jewish world
scholar Ephraim Isaac, left, chats with Nigist Mengesha,
director of Israel's Ethiopian National Project, and
Conservative rabbinical student Juan Mejia on May 4,
2008 at the Be’chol Lashon conference in San
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) -- Miguel Segura
Aguilo’s ancestors were executed as Jews five centuries ago in
Spain, but he is not welcome in his local synagogue today.
Gershom Sizomu, who will be ordained this month in Los
Angeles as a Conservative rabbi, dreams of setting up the
African Jews in his Abayudayan village in East
Rabbi Capers Funnye, spiritual leader of a
largely African-American congregation in Chicago, is off to
Nigeria to make connections with the Ibo, a community that
claims Jewish heritage.
These men, and dozens of other
representatives of far-flung communities seeking recognition
by the Jewish mainstream, gathered earlier this month in San
Francisco at a conference sponsored by Be’chol Lashon (In
Every Tongue), a project of the Institute for Jewish and
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The Ibo, Lemba and
Abayudaya of Africa, the anusim and xuetas of Spain and Latin
America, Ethiopian Jews from Israel, Indian Jews from New York and
Asian-American Jews-by-Choice spent three days networking and
sharing information about their struggles to join the global Jewish
family, a family that is not always eager to embrace them.
“The Jewish community keeps talking about the crisis of
intermarriage and the crisis of declining numbers, but meanwhile
you’ve got people with Jewish heritage, spiritual seekers, Jewish
communities of historical significance, and the Jewish community is
doing nothing to help them,” says Gary Tobin, the institute’s
president and a longtime advocate of greater openness to those
outside the Ashkenazi mainstream.
According to institute
research, at least 20 percent of American Jews are racially and
ethnically diverse. But old stereotypes about what “real Jews” look
like persist, Tobin says.
“Instead of worrying about people
being ‘lost’ to intermarriage," he wonders, "why aren’t we extending
our ideological borders to include all these people who are so
interested in joining us?”
Some of these communities have
gone through formal conversion, like the 800 Abayudaya of Uganda,
who did so together in 2002. Others have not, including the Lemba of
South Africa, who claim Jewish ancestry and point to the Jewish
cultural practices they have maintained for centuries.
others languish in a gray zone, notably the anusim of Spain,
Portugal and Latin America, known more popularly as the conversos --
those whose ancestors were forcibly converted to Catholicism under
the Inquisition, and who now wish to reclaim their Jewish
identities. Estimates of their number range from tens of thousands
to more than 1 million.
Aguilo was part of a group from
Mallorca, Spain that met with Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah
Metzger, last year, to request a mechanism for their return to the
“He told us, ‘I need to find a legal tool to
defend your position to the rabbinate,’” says Aguilo, a prominent
journalist who writes and lectures widely about the xuetas,
descendants of those conversos who recanted and reclaimed their
Judaism before execution.
Aguilo and his friends are still
waiting for Metzger’s reply. “Whatever happens, just don’t put a
cross on my grave,” he says, only half-joking.
Some of the
anusim claim special status as the descendants of Jews, insisting
that they don’t need formal conversion. A handful of sympathetic
rabbis have held “ceremonies of return” for them, just as a growing
number of Conservative rabbis describe the conversion of people with
one Jewish parent as “affirmations” of a Jewish identity they were
But thousands of others are willing to undergo
conversion, says Cuban-born Rabbi Manny Vinas, who runs El Centro de
Estudios Judios, a Spanish-language Torah center in New York that
tries to guide anusim back to Judaism.
“These people want to
return to Jerusalem with their heads held high,” he says, arguing
the need for a formal process to help them.
Those who wish
their conversions to be recognized by Israel are thwarted, he
asserts, by new conversion regulations worked out between Israel’s
rabbinate and the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, whereby
only conversions performed by 15 Orthodox rabbinical courts in North
America will be accepted in Israel.
That means, he
continues, that anyone from Central or South America who wants to
convert must travel to North America, a practice that favors the
“The only people able to convert are those with enough
money to do it in the United States," he says.
Some of the
communities in Be’chol Lashon’s network are far removed from this
political struggle over conversion. The Lemba of South Africa, who
formed their own Lemba Cultural Association in 1948, are still at
the stage of finding out who they are, and what Judaism is all
Be’chol Lashon is sponsoring a Lemba student in
Botswana who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the history of
the community. This is in line with the group’s focus on empowering
local leadership, says Be'chol Lashon director Diane Tobin.
She noted that Be’chol Lashon also funded Sizomu’s five years at
the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, so he could
return to Uganda this summer as Africa’s first native-born black
Sizomu wonders what effect his return will have on his people's
worship style, as he has now become accustomed to western
"The words we use are the same," he says, explaining that the
Abayudaya use prayer books donated by Conservative rabbis who have
visited this past decade, "but the melodies are African."
Tobin said she hopes to fund rabbinical studies for more African
“We will work with anyone who wants to move forward toward being
part of the Jewish community,” she says.
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