Do Not Come Out of the Basement Alone
By Rabbi Juan Mejía
One of the most pernicious images in the rich romantic iconography of the Anusim is that of a lonely Jewess lighting candles in the basement all by herself. It is pernicious because it perpetuates the myth that Crypto Judaism (or Judaism for that matter) can survive exclusively as an act of faith and resistance by an individual. Without a supportive community that shares beliefs and practices, Judaism of any kind becomes unsustainable. In no place is this more obvious than in the efforts of Benei Anusim (the descendants of these forced Jews) in reincorporating themselves into the fabric of Jewish life. In almost all cases, the availability of a welcoming Jewish community is the determining factor between the success of this reintegration or its failure and the subsequent (and final) reabsorption of this community into the surrounding religious culture. Given that outside the United States most Benei Anusim are unable to find a supportive and welcoming community in the already existing Jewish institutions, most are forced to create their own.
This past month, while traveling in my native Colombia, I was blessed to visit four such emerging communities composed almost exclusively by people who identify as Benei Anusim or by people who are joining the Jewish people from without. Each community was very different; each reflecting the differences in ideology and local color. Some are very developed and some are just starting. Nevertheless, they all stand as a living proof of the necessity of community for any successful Jewish endeavor.
Nestled among the mountains surrounding Medellin is the Comunidad Sefardita de Antioquia (Sephardic Community of Antioquia). This congregation, more than any other I have visited thus far, shows the power of community. Starting as an evangelical church more than seven years ago, a core in this community discovered their Jewish roots and started the long process of migrating back to Judaism. Along the way, as their Jewish convictions were solidified and affirmed, the community started to attract more Benei Anusim from the neighboring area which was a hotbed of Jewish settlement throughout the time of the Inquisition. The communal process of this congregation (as opposed to random individual processes) coupled with hard work has reaped many fruits. Today, la Comunidad Sefardita de Antioquia has over 300 regular members, an ample synagogue with Orthodox prayer services three times a day. Aside from this, members of the community have established the first kosher supermarket and restaurant in the city. More impressively, the community just opened a Jewish kindergarten in which the children of the community will learn Hebrew as well as Spanish. This community has single-handedly transformed the working class suburb of Bello into a hotbed of Jewish activity that can easily match that of the more established normative Jewish communities of the country or, dare I say, of America.
Just beginning their activities, we can find the Javurá Masortí de Bogotá (Masorti Chavurah of Bogotá). Composed mostly of young professionals, this group casts a large net that encompasses born Jews (most of them Ashkenazi), Benei Anusim, prospective converts and people who have already completed their process. The common denominator in this community is the intense desire of living a Jewish life and connecting with other Jews when the normative communities do not provide an environment that is inclusive or welcoming. Unlike their chavurah counterparts in America, these Jews have not opted to create a space outside the stodgy atmosphere of the normative communities, rather they have been forced by the establishment's restrictive view of who can belong (or even enter) a synagogue to create their own spaces. However, like their American counterparts, being peripheral to the normative communities allows them room for innovation and growth that are unavailable in the more restricted walls of the establishment. The chavurah is already organizing regular religious servicies and social activities as well as an educational program of outreach. May they go from strength to strength.
In the same city, yet in a different point of the religious spectrum, Comunidad Maim Jaim (Community "Living Waters") is (to my knowledge) the only successful Orthodox community outside of the establishment in Colombia´s capital. Maim Jaim was the product of the merger of several informal Orthodox "chavurot" of Benei Anusim and conversion candidates. As a larger group (roughly over 100 people) they managed to secure an Orthodox conversion two years ago for all the members of the community. Today, they struggle to preserve the observant character of their community in the face of many challenges; the most painful of which is the lack of recognition of the local community who, depending who you ask, sees them a threat because they are "too religious" or because "we are not certain if they are really Jewish." Despite these difficulties, Maim Jaim is sticking to its guns and providing an Orthodox space which, as a recent TV piece on them declared, "is open to people of all social classes and walks of life": a true rarity in the Latin American Jewish landscape.
Finally, blessed by the breezes and sights of Colombia´s most beautiful beaches we find the Javurá Masortit Shirat Hayyam (Masorti Chavura "Song of the Sea"). This group was formed recently in the city of Santa Marta from several families of Benei Anusim that had been working towards their return with several rabbis without finding a proper fit. Although young, this growing chavurah already has big plans for the future. They are planning to build the first kosher eco-finca (country house suited for ecological tourism) in the idyllic Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to serve the Jewish tourist and also to attract Hebrew teachers from the large Israeli population that visits the area. They are also partnering with local native weavers to produce kippot with Colombian flair. They also hope to plan and sponsor a "Meeting of the Sages" bringing several Western religious leaders (among them rabbis) to sit down with the local native sages to share ancestral wisdom and discover the ties that bind us. This community has decided to take advantage of its paradisiacal location to project itself into the global Jewish community and make its mark, rather than waiting for the approval of the local powers that be.
These four miraculous communities share many things and are radically different in many others. However, they do share a commonality that is a lesson to all Benei Anusim and to all Jews of Color: nothing matches the power of community. If Hillel said "where there are no men, be you a man", these communities add "where there are no communities, you be that community." Only then can the true blessings of Jewish living and Jewish belonging will be within our grasp. Only then can we come out of the basement. Not alone, but already as parts of a bigger whole.