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October 30, 2009 3:12 pm

Re-Branding Judaism

avatar by Dovid Efune

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On a recent flight from Miami to New York, I found myself seated next to two ladies of Lebanese descent from the Dominican Republic named Ruth and Raysa. Seeing that I was Jewish, they seized the opportunity to shed some grievances about Jews and Israel, albeit in a conversational fashion. Starting with the “oppression” of Palestinian Arabs and the “disproportionate” war in Lebanon, Ruth bluntly concluded “most people who aren’t Jewish don’t like Jews.”

Raysa, who is a professor of film at a prestigious university, proceeded to tell how she was detained at Ben Gurion international airport after showing up with a passport that had previously been stamped in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. She mentioned that in an effort to convince the homeland security personnel to allow her to stay she argued “you people killed my savior, the least you can do now is allow me to visit the place of his burial” needless to say, she was on the next plane back to Cyprus.

But the conversation soon took a bizarre twist, and as we continued to talk I soon discovered that I was actually talking to two Jewesses, (at least according to Jewish law.)

It turns out The Dominican Republic was one of the very few countries prepared to accept Jewish immigration during World War II. About 700 European Jews of Ashkenazi Jewish descent reached Sosua, on the northern coast where they were assigned land and cattle and other refugees settled in the capital, Santo Domingo. In 1943 the number of known Jews in the Dominican Republic peaked at 1000 and since then it has been in constant decline, due to emigration and assimilation.

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They went on to explain how their maternal grandmothers had come to the Dominican Republic from Poland to escape Nazi oppression.  Soon after their arrival they converted to Christianity as they didn’t want to confer the status of victimhood onto their children. Their Jewish names Ruth and Raysa, a Latino version of Rosa/Shoshana bore testimony to their heritage. In the interest of ensuring a happy ending to this story, I gave their contact details to their local Chabad Rabbi, and I have no doubt that they will soon be studying at a woman’s yeshiva in Israel.

As I looked at the wooden crucifixes hanging from their necks, I wondered how many more lost Jews there must be, that don’t even know it.

This story has some similarities to a claim made the in the British Daily Telegraph, claiming that violently anti-Semitic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was actually of Jewish descent. The article read as follows:

“A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots. A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian – a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver.

The short note scrawled on the card suggests his family changed its name to Ahmadinejad when they converted to embrace Islam after his birth. The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad’s birthplace, and the name derives from “weaver of the Sabour”, the name for the Jewish Tallit shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran’s Ministry of the Interior.”
On the same note, is a fascinating albeit lesser known aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict. Research and testimony has shown that many Palestinian Arabs are of Jewish origin. A video documentary produced by Hi tech entrepreneur Tzvi Misinai, who has made this research his life mission, seems to offer some compelling evidence.

The documentary features testimony from many Palestinian Arabs who claim to be of Jewish descent, in some cases this was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and in a few families Jewish traditions are adhered to. Professor Ariella Oppenheim of Hebrew University speaks of close genetic similarities between Palestinian Arabs and European Jews, even locating the Cohen gene.

Jewish assimilation is by no means a new problem, to which Jewish leaders have attempted to respond. But it is the reality of widespread Jewish identity among communities that may define themselves as enemies of the Jewish people that brings a whole new dimension to the challenge of Jewish outreach, as it is much harder for these Jews to attempt to rediscover their roots.

Perhaps a greater effort should be made by Jewish leaders to present Judaism in a different light, thus making it more appealing for assimilated Jews in general and specifically from these backgrounds to re-connect to their heritage.

As Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks mentioned in a recent interview with the Algemeiner:
“Nowadays when you read about Jews it’s about anti Semitism, the holocaust, boycotts, Israel,  50% out -marriage rates, but that is not who we are, these are our problems.  Where do I read in the news about Judaism having a message of hope for humankind, yet when I lecture in America at various institutions, they are hungry for a Jewish message and they certainly don’t want a Jewish message which says ” the world hates Jews”. We are the world’s oldest and most persistent victims, I don’t think anyone wants that message. If you tell a young generation of Jewish teenagers, we want you to know about Jewish history come to Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and Treblinka and you’ll know what it is to be a Jew, then they will have 2 or 10 thoughts before marrying another Jew and having Jewish children. Who wants to confer the status of victimhood onto their children and grandchildren?”

This must apply with all young Jews today who are struggling with their identity. Who wants to be defined by an ongoing bloody conflict that never seems to end, who wants to be defined by who our enemies are. Yes, this is one of our greatest struggles and challenges, but we shouldn’t allow this negativity to be the loudest Jewish noise.

As Jews we must not allow others to define us, either as victims or as enemies, the definition of being Jewish is not to be embroiled in conflict or suffering, but to carry the message of hope and a better future to the nations of the world.

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