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October 2, 2016 6:00 am

Exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews Are Returning Home to Israel

avatar by Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman / JNS.org

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Sonya Loya (right) leads Bnei Anusim on a tour of the ancient Sephardic community of Safed. Photo: provided.

Sonya Loya (right) leads Bnei Anusim on a tour of the ancient Sephardic community of Safed. Photo: Courtesy.

JNS.org – Sonya Loya never felt Catholic; she was drawn to Judaism instead.

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

Since that revelation in the 1990s, Loya has traced her family line to a Spanish rabbinic dynasty, dating back to 1430, and delved into the Jewish religion — and forgotten memories rushed to the surface. When Loya witnessed the lighting of Shabbat candles at her first Friday-night dinner, she recalled, “That was what my grandma used to do.”

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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 six that he was Jewish.

“His uncle returned 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 and he held on to that secret for 64 years.”

Today, Loya runs travel tours to Israel for Spanish and Portuguese bnei anusim, a term for the descendants of Sephardi Jews who underwent forced conversion during the Inquisition.

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

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

Sanchez embarked on a standard ancestral search and 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.

Prior to the start of the Inquisition in 1492, the Spanish-Jewish community was regarded as one of the strongest and most powerful, but, over the course of two centuries, some 200,000 Jews were forcibly converted and many others persecuted, exiled and tortured.

Today, there are an estimated 100 million to 150 million bnei anusim around the world, according to Ashley Perry, president of Reconectar, an organization that provides personalized tools to facilitate interested bnei anusim’s exploration into the contemporary Jewish community and Israel, helping individuals as well as communities learn about and “reconnect” with Judaism. Since the site’s recent launch, 300,000 people have visited Reconectar, 14 percent of which say they self-identify as Jewish. Another 30 percent say they are 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. He is also the director general of an Israeli Knesset caucus recently formed for the same purpose.

Perry’s dedication to this cause comes from his feeling that, “it is a moral, ethical and even halakhic (Jewish law) imperative,” to bring the bnei anusim back into the fold. He noted that many great rabbinical figures who ruled on the Jewish status of people forced to convert determined they were still Jewish.

He also said Jewry today — which faces antisemitism, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, diplomatic disputes, shrinking affiliation and assimilation — could benefit from reconnecting with bnei anusim.

To bring about changes, he said, “We are taking a top-down approach [through official channels] and a bottom-up approach, through the people.”

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 southwestern 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.”

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