Some Sephardic Jews are part of distinct cultural heritage different from the majority Ashkenazi population in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere. Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect not Yiddish. “Sepharad” is the Hebrew word for Spain, but Sephardic refers to the descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who ended up all over the world.
In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain (and then, in 1496, from Portugal), Sephardic history was split into two separate narratives: the first, the well known story of those Sephardic Jews who went into exile and scattered across the world; and the other, the hidden history of those who remained under Spanish and Portuguese rule, ostensibly converting to Catholicism while secretly retaining Jewish identities and practices.
The descendants of the latter group, the b'nei anusim (“children of those who were forced,” also known as “conversos,” “crypto-Jews,” and “marranos”), today number in the tens of millions, spread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America. While many of the b'nei anusim either do not know or are not interested in their Jewish heritage, many others are exploring their interrupted connection to Judaism and a large number are looking for avenues to return to the Jewish community.
The path of return is a continuum rather than an absolute. Some b'nei anusim embrace Jewish practices and teachings in their homes; some participate in Jewish communal activities; some undergo a ceremony of return; and still others decide to undertake a formal conversion, from Reform to Orthodox. For many, access to different aspects of Jewish life decides the path they will take to return. No matter where they fall on the continuum, there is the potential for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of b'nei anusim to return to the Jewish people.
The b'nei anusim are an essential component of potential growth. If the forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitorial persecutions had not occurred, the Sephardic population today would number in the tens of millions. Be'chol Lashon seeks to restore a link that was broken and thereby strengthen the future of the Jewish people.
Jews who have felt unsafe throughout history have adopted one of two general responses to threats: either separation from the majority community into self-defined "ghettos" that keep outsiders at a distance, or dispersal and disappearance into the larger community.
For over 500 years, the b'nei anusim have survived by following the latter approach, holding onto remnants of Jewish customs in secret, such as lighting candles on Friday nights and revealing their true identities to younger family members in deathbed confessions or similarly hidden contexts . Even though the Inquisition has ended, many still live today in overtly anti-Semitic cultures and remain fearful of outsiders learning about their secret identities. This poses a particular challenge in locating, identifying, and providing services to individuals who are frightened of being discovered, and it requires special efforts to make people feel safe and secure in exploring and reaffirming their Judaism.
Additionally, in many communities in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, small populations of Jews (mostly of Central and Eastern European descent) do live openly, but because of their own recent history-many are survivors or descendants of survivors of the Holocaust-and the anti-Semitic culture that surrounds them, they are suspicious of any outsider, including the b'nei anusim, who sometimes attempt to enter their closed communities and are turned away.
As a result, many b'nei anusim, especially in Latin America, find themselves both frightened of publicly identifying as Jews and kept out of the relatively safer circles of the small established Jewish communities in their own countries. Without the ability to associate with other Jews, it is extremely difficult to maintain and build a Jewish identity, especially in countries that have a history of hostility towards the Jewish people.
Yet, more and more brave people are coming forward, and need for services for b'nei anusim around the world is growing. With the more widespread availability of the internet, increasing numbers of b'nei anusim are exploring their Jewish heritage on their own, spurred by a sense of incompleteness and a longing to return to the Jewish people. Many report having felt separate their entire lives without knowing why and are now grappling with questions of identity and belonging, history and spirituality.
The return of the b'nei anusim must be accomplished in an open and non-judgmental manner, with no pressure to choose any particular path nor make any larger commitment. A sense of safety and easy access to resources are key to repairing this broken link.
Opening the gates and arms of the Jewish people to welcome back so many potential allies and community members is especially critical now, at a time when the Jewish population is stagnant or shrinking, and anti-Semitism is on the rise in many places around the globe. Both in Europe and Latin America, a larger and more visible Jewish community will serve as a bulwark against forces threatening the survival of the Jewish people.