A Rebirth in Portugal

About 18 months ago, the Jerusalem office of Masorti Olami/World Council of Conservative Judaism asked Rabbi Jules Harlow and his wife Navah to go to Lisbon.  There had been a plea from a group of Lisbon residents to send a rabbi to them to instruct them in the Jewish religion and its customs and ceremonies.  They were, they said, Bnai Anousim, descendants of Jews who in 1496 were forcibly baptized by order of Manuel I, the King of Portugal, and prevented from leaving Portugal after their “conversion.”

The Bnai Anousim described themselves as belonging to families who, through the long 500-year night of paying lip-service to the Catholicism, remained faithful in their hearts to the Jewish religion.  Now they wished to declare themselves Jews and to reunite with their religious compatriots.  With some apprehension as to what they might encounter, Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow proceeded to Lisbon.  What they found has preoccupied their energies for the ensuing 18 months and has uplifted their own spirituality.  They recounted their experience at a recent, well-attended meeting of the Manhattan JCC.  On their first trip to Lisbon, they met 15 people, most of them in their twenties and thirties, at a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service in Ohel Yaakov, one of Lisbon’s two synagogues.  Ohel Yaakov was established by Polish Jews in the 1920s in in the second floor of an apartment building that was falling into disrepair.  In time the Polish Jewish community dwindled and the few remaining families welcomed the Bnai Anousim to their space.  Last Hanukkah the Bnai Anousim, led by Harlows, dedicated the synagogue in a new location.  

The only other synagogue in Lisbon is Shaare Tikvah, a Sephardic synagogue established by Moroccan and other North African Jews.  Unfortunately, Shaare Tikvah did not welcome the Bnai Anousim into their synagogue, which should naturally have been their home.  (My own research has indicated that there may be an historical reason for this rejection.  In 1492, when Spain expelled half of its Jewish population, those who left to avoid converting to Catholicism – especially those who fled to Morocco where they suffered greatly – had great disdain for those who, in their opinion, took the easy way out by staying in Spain and converting.)

Rabbi Jules and Navah found that one of the Bnai Anousim, a linguist, had taught the congregation to read Hebrew, so that they are familiar with the Hebrew of the Siddur.  Also, Rabbi Harlow made a tape of the melodies for Kiddush, havdalah, and major parts of the Shabbat service.  They made copies and distributed them, so some members of the group now lead services and chant Kiddush, havdalah, etc.  When Rabbi Jules attempted to teach them the tunes and the Torah and haftorah chants of the Sephardim, the Bnai Anousim insisted on learning instead the tunes and chants of the Askenazim because “the Polish Jews took us in.”

Rabbi Jules and Navah stayed for a week.  During the week, they held classes from 7 to 10 p.m.  At the end of the week the Bnai Anousim begged them to return and not to abandon them.  They declared that they had always been Jews, but now they wish to be reunited with their co-religionists even if they must accept conversion to Judaism.  They recited family traditions to show that they had never abandoned Judaism: two sets of silverware; candles lit on Friday nights; no shellfish or pork; and cleaning rooms by sweeping dirt to the middle rather than out the door – a custom of Spanish Jews when their homes had mezuzot on doors which Bnai Anousim continued to follow even though their doors no longer had mezuzot.

Rabbi Jules and Navah have returned to Lisbon many times since their first journey 18 months ago.  During each of their visits, they followed the same teaching schedule.  To date, seven members of the congregation have formally converted to Judaism by a Massorti Beit Din in London.  Each of the prospective converts had to fulfill the ritual requirements of immersion in a mikveh, and each of the men, who had been circumcised surgically, completed the ritual requirements of brit milah by undergoing hatafat dam brit (in which a drop of blood is drawn).  This was in addition to their satisfying the beit din with their knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions, and their commitment to lead Jewish lives, including their obligation to fulfill mitzvoth.  One couple had been married civilly in Lisbon three years ago.  At the conclusion of the formal conversion in London, they were married under a chuppah according to Jewish Law with Rabbi Jules officiating.  

One of the members summed up her feelings as follows:  “We have always felt alone.  Now we know that we are no longer alone.”  For Rabbi Jules and Navah it was a humbling privilege to assist in their  Jewish “Rebirth” and to experience the intensity of their emotion.