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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Open Letter on the Anusim Situation

By Shelomo Alfassa

June 17, 2005

Note: This article supports the anusim in their plight to return to Judaism.
However it supports them to return under real Judaism, not some quasi-version of the religion.

Over the years I have spoken extensively about the situation regarding the anusim, the people who believe they are descendant from those forcibly converted under the thumb of the Catholic Church in Spain and Portugal during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Former Catholics are coming out in moderate numbers realizing that many of their ancestors were Jews, and without doubt, many-but not all-were. The growth and availability of the Internet in 1995 helped information to be shared, and now ten years later, there is an explosion of interest. Although there are some sincerely interested in helping these people learn more about Judaism, there are others who lurk in the shadows of the Jewish world preying on them, exploiting them.

These people have a network. They all know one another, they all know what their peers do. These people, mostly individuals, make a cash profit at the expense of these poor people whose ancestors were victimized hundreds of years ago.

Descendants of anusim are today reaching out for help. Many desire to know everything from what is a Jew, to how to become a Jew. Those helping the anusim are divided in two camps, those that want to help them for intrinsic reasons-because they need help and should be helped; and those that help the anusim because extending advice to them will help them turn a profit. In the former assembly are organizations such as Shavei Israel, Chabad Lubavitch and well known individuals such as Rabbi Moshe Otero in Miami, Moshe Lopez, in Orlando and others around the world. In the latter are groups and individuals, some highly sneaky, that are 'working with the anusim' for what I term, less than honorable reasons.

Of course I cannot name names, our politically correct and litigious society will not allow me to do that, but I can tell you what they do. What they do, is sell Judaism for cash. They sell it to people who are sincere in spirit, but ignorant in knowledge. They sell it to the anusim. Conversion to Judaism has gone from something grounded in Torah and mitsvot to prostitution. It has fallen into the black hole of 'you pay me, I give you what you want.'

Conversion to Judaism is now even available electronically. There is home study program, organized under a reform Judaism frame. The candidate studies at home, then once they feel they have studied enough to become Jewish, they fly to a hotel in Miami where in just one eight hour class are taught by a 'rabbi,' Jewish ethics, blessings, prayers, heritage, customs, symbols, values, and the Holocaust. The candidate then chooses a Hebrew name, walks out to the beach for immersion in the mikva, and instantly-they are 'Jewish.' Only eight hours with the 'rabbi' and they are 'Jewish.' As soon as they dry off with their towel, these 'new Jews' can drive up the block to the Jewish Federation building on Biscayne Boulevard and apply to make Aliyah-this is NO exaggeration. Since the Aliyah office is generally on a speed track themselves, they can go from being Christian, Muslim, Hindu or any non-Jewish religion for that matter, to becoming a Jew-and getting a date for their arrive in Israel-in a matter of weeks, if not three to five days. This Internet conversion program is just one of many.

Another program exists where the conversion candidate meets twenty times with the 'rabbi' then pays a $125 fee. With this, they get 30 minute lesson by the 'rabbi's wife' who teaches, 'basic Hebrew reading in the last half hour.' For $125 they have legally purchased a right to Israeli citizenship.

Another 'rabbi,' one that is well known among the anusim, offers his own brand of traveling conversions. This summer he is planning to travel to Central and South America. He plans to visit Ecuador, where he will be doing 28 conversions among families of Anusim. In July, he makes a second trip to six countries: Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama for the same. He takes people who say they have Jewish roots, 'educates them' and then hands them a certificate after they hand him cash or a check.

As of February 20, 2002, anyone who goes through one of these 'conversion' programs I have discussed is considered Jewish by the Israeli Supreme Court. Once attending one of these 'conversion' programs they need only apply and are then legally fall under the law which says any Jew can come live in the State of Israel. These people are entitled to a free airplane ticket, can move to Israel where they will receive financial benefits and other perks for up to eleven years. Still, the people who get these pseudo-conversions will have nothing but problems in the future. They will have problems with bar mitsvas for their children, marriage, and many other issues. They will remain on the margins of Jewish society, as they have NOT had a legitimate conversion. If anusim want to return, this is the wrong way to go about it.

The question can be asked, why are so many people are streaming out of poor Latin American countries claiming they are Jewish? While some are actually descendants of Jews-others just want to move to a modern country and reap the benefits which will be handed them on a silver platter. The fact is programs exist to convert anusim (or for that matter anyone of another religion) and give them a less-than-halachic conversion. The 'rabbis' who are 'converting' the anusim (or as they like to use the term 'returning them') back to Judaism, have developed their model outside a halachic framework, where they make a profit from the fees charged for the conversion.

Klal Yisrael, the Jewish nation, must and shall welcome all ger zedekim (righteous converts) into Judaism. However, just like converts have a responsibility to be sincere, their teachers must be respected authorized members of the Jewish community, not fly-by-night hawkers who hang out a shingle which reads 'rabbi' and can authorize documents proclaiming the person who handed cash over to them to be Jewish.

Members of the orthodox community must be vigilant and not fall for people calling themselves 'anusim experts' or 'advocates for the anusim,' when these people themselves have no interest in the anusim other than for financial gain. Some of these so-called 'anusim experts' are nothing more than missionaries who work under the Protestant myth that the Jews must return to Zion, even the 'crypto-Jews.' Some of these people have moved to Israel where they are pulling the wool over the eyes of the orthodox rabbanim, the media and the government. These people who are not legitimate have charmingly convinced influential people in the Israeli government that they are indeed legitimate, usually because they are name droppers and have persuaded legitimate people to be their friends. The leaders of these groups must be rooted out and stopped.

Rabbis and Israeli politicians, I warn you now, watch for those that will come to you, sweet talking about grand ideas of bringing thousands upon thousands of Hispanic anusim into Israel. They make such grand statements because there is a capitation fee per head, per anusim convert/returnees. Again, while there are legitimate organizations and individuals helping lost Jews, there are also individuals starting multiple different organizations with fanciful creative titles, doing nothing but leading people astray while emptying their wallets and damaging their psyches.

Israeli politicians have a responsibility to protect the Jewishness of the Jewish state. It is one thing not to be observant, it is another to take actions which directly cause destruction of your religion. Similarly, the leading rabbis of our generation need to address this issue today. They need to develop a set of standards the Jewish world can implement when educating the anusim, how to address their unique needs and how to protect them from snake oil salesman and others who put a stumbling block before the blind. To their credit, some of the rabbanim have, yet, most have not.

Even the most secular Jew should take measures to defend the religion of their grandparents from division into two distinct camps. A system which has Jews on one side that are Jews according to God, Torah, Talmud and tradition, and another one which has 'Jews' based on a political-social model made up of gentiles who have gone through a Jewish-like quasi right of passage and paid an entrance fee to a con artist. Many of these people are sincere in their desire to convert, but are being deceived by the 'rabbis' they approach. How can reform and conservative 'rabbis' insist that converts be holier than they, that converts be obliged to observe laws of kashruth, observe the Shabbat and holidays, put on Tefillin each morning, pray three times a day, etc. When the 'rabbi' who is supervising the conversion most likely does not observe these practices himself?

Without doubt, the persons conducting these pseudo-conversions realize that there is no way individuals will take on the yoke of Torah and follow through observing all of the commandments that one is required upon converting. How can these people be expected to do this with such little education, no follow up, no community, no future, no planning, no Jewish infrastructure and no support to help new converts. So the final question is, if these 'rabbis' know their anusim conversion candidates will become transgressors once converted, why would they want them to become Jews in the first place? The reason is simple: money, greed, profit.


Mr. Alfassa is an international advocate for Sephardic Jewry. He is the founder and executive director of the International Society for Sephardic Progress.