It feels like I’ve been away a very long time even though I’ve only missed one Shabbos. I think that’s because I’ve been to 2 completely different worlds—each has had for me a similar message about what is truly important in life. On the way home Cheryl and I stopped off in Florida to begin to clean out my father’s condo and set his affairs in order. There was so much in the condo that it made us realize that we spend our lives accumulating more and more “stuff” and in the end—after we pass—who wants any of it?
As you know, Cheryl and I have been on a very special mission to Nicaragua. It’s impossible to explain this mission without understanding a bit of history. “In 1492 Columbus sailed the Ocean blue.” That you all know. Let me tell you, as Paul Harvey would put it, “the rest of the story.” Columbus actually postponed his voyage a couple of days because he was supposed to set sail on July 31st, which was Tisha B’Av—the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av which we will commemorate Monday night and which is the most tragic day in the Jewish calendar, a day in which all the great tragedies that ever happened to the Jewish people occurred. Was Columbus Jewish? You bet he was. There’s a good deal of proof, but just let me tell you that his original family name was Columbo, a prominent Italian Marrano (openly Christian while secretly Jewish) family name. Columbus was from Italy and spoke Spanish with an Italian accent. Many of his crucial officers on his voyages were Marrano Jews. It was Marrano Jews that created the navigational equipment he used. It was Marrano Jews that helped fund his expeditions.
It was also on that Tisha B’Av in 1492 that Queen Isabella of Spain’s Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from the Inquisition took effect. It declared that all Jews in Spain who had not left Spain since the signing of the edict 4 months earlier had to convert or die. Then the government made it almost impossible for Jews to leave the country as they kidnaped the children of those who tried. Even if one was successful in leaving, where would one go? Few countries welcomed Jews and it was a treacherous journey getting there. Many fled to Portugal, but the Inquisition soon followed there as well. Some fled to the New World, to places like Bahia and Recife Brazil because it was controlled by the Dutch who more or less welcomed Jews. But Portugal soon conquered Brazil and the Jews had to flee again with some winding up in New Amsterdam which soon became New York and others in the new emerging communities of the Caribbean like Curacao, Suriname, Santo Domingo and Jamaica.
Many openly converted to Christianity but secretly remained Jews. The Christians called the Marranos (pigs). They had to be especially careful because if they were caught not burning their stoves on Saturday or not eating on Yom Kippur or doing a Jewish custom or not showing up for church on Sunday, the Inquisition would arrest them, torture the on racks that tore their bodies apart, force them to inform on other secret Jews, burn them at the auto-de-fe and then take all their assets.
Can you imagine the terror this engendered? No wonder they were careful not to tell their children much about being Jewish for fear it might spill out when they played with Christian children. Now how long do you think being Jewish would have lasted for these Jews—one generation or 2, 50 or 100 years? How about 425 years! How amazing is the Jewish spirit, the Jewish soul! 425 years after the signing of the Edict of Expulsion of the Inquisition the Jewish soul emerges as strong as ever in Nicaragua—a place where in 2012 there were only 50 Jews!
About 6 weeks ago I received a call from Kulanu (in Hebrew literally “All of Us”) an amazing organization that helps emerging Jewish communities in Latin America, Africa and India. The vice president of Kulanu—Bonnie Sussman—is the wife of a colleague I have known for 25 years—Gerry Sussman. Bonnie told me about this mission to Nicaragua and asked if I would be interested in being part of a Bet Din of 3 orthodox rabbis to convert those who are descendants of Jews or, for some surprising reason, their souls have been attracted to Judaism.
Would I? My whole life has been about helping that Pintle Yid, that Jewish soul emerge from those who have—for one reason or another—been estranged from Jewish life. “However,” I told her, “my father’s health was failing and I’m not sure I would be able to make it.” Right after the shiva she called again and although I needed to immediately go to Florida to clean out my father’s condo and begin to put his affairs in order, Cheryl and I agreed. The timing wasn’t great, but this was an opportunity we couldn’t afford to miss.
Understand that Nicaragua is a poor country. Hotel accommodations are rather limited. It is near the equator and, therefore always very warm. The home where we conducted the conversions—although owned by 2 successful people, Dr. Moshe Henriquez, a radiation oncologist, and his wife Yehudit, a supreme court lawyer—was not air conditioned because it’s too expensive! Conditions may have been difficult, but the spirit was inspiring. Dr. Moshe had assembled a small, but faithful community that has been studying Judaism and praying Shabbat services together for years.
I had recently read an amazing book, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, that tells about Jews in the 16th and 17th centuries who had owned boats and became pirates against the Spanish and Portuguese who betrayed their people. They did this in concert with England who, in turn, guaranteed a place in their colonies for Jews. One of the Jewish pirate heroes was Moshe Cohen Henriquez. So it was to my amazement to discover that Dr. Moshe Henriquez was a direct descendent of the great Jewish pirate Moshe Cohen Henriquez!
What amazed me and Cheryl is the spirit of these people. They don’t have much but they have sacrificed so much just to be Jewish. As we conducted the conversions, many would come early in the morning and sit for as much as 10 hours waiting for their turn at the Bet Din. The love in their hearts for Hashem and Torah, the glow on their faces when they emerged from themikvah as Jews was so inspiring. My wife Cheryl was the official mikvah lady, supervising the women as they immersed. She did an outstanding job making the women feel comfortable as she enthusiastically led them through the process even though she doesn’t speak more than a couple of words of Spanish. The women approached the mikvah with a good deal of trepidation because they had to remove their clothes and, truth be told, many were afraid of going under water. Let me share with you some of Cheryl’s stories.
There are a couple of blessings that a convert needs to recite at the mikvah.The final one is the Shehecheyanu thanking Gd for reaching this occasion. Cheryl tells us that most of the women—and I can say it was the same for the men—had trouble pronouncing the word Shehecheyanu. To help them Cheryl broke it down into syllables—using her fingers to show them the syllables. The women would copy her by repeating the syllables also using their hands as if it was part of the bracha!
Sabrina, about 14 years old, came into the mikvah with such exuberance and utter joy and excitement that she bounded down the steps of the Mikvah. When Cheryl told her to go into the water she practically dived in as the waters splashed all over. When reciting the blessings after Cheryl she shouted them with all her might with such joy and happiness. She recited theShehecheyanu with such love and devotion that is seldom seen among Jews praying today. The whole mikvah rocked with her enthusiasm.
Chaviva was so anxious and nervous as she entered the mikvah, but when she came out there were incredible tears of joy as she hugged and kissed and hugged and kissed Cheryl as she touched her heart. With a translator she later explained that she had 4 children and a few grandchildren. They all had already been converted and she was the only one who hadn’t been converted. Her son is now in Lakewood NJ and studying to be a rabbi.
Gisselle, wife of Akiva Simcha Fernandez, the leader of the 2nd group we converted is blind. She is very reserved and shy. Cheryl helped guide her into the mikvah as she clutched the handrails. Additionally she was also terrified of going under water. When she emerged from the mikvah, it was like she could see through her eyes that were blind as her whole face radiated with the joy of the mikvah experience. This quiet reserved personality was transformed into a beautiful, boisterous, laughing and joyful character.
Let me share some of the stories I came away with from the interviews of theBet Din. We asked everyone when they became interested in Judaism. One young man said it was when his grandfather died and left him a tallit. He asked what it was and his search led him to become Jewish like his grandfather. One woman said she was told as a girl not to go out on Friday nights and not to eat pork. One young man said that only when he asked questions about Jewish things he saw did his grandmother tell him he was descendent from Jews.
It was not unusual for some of these people to be 1st attracted and join Jewish Messianic groups—Jews for Jesus—because they were told that this was the real Judaism. One who did join told us he only left when he met a distant cousin who had left and became a frum Jew and that’s how he found out what real Judaism is.
I have each conversion candidate sign a conversion oath at the Bet Din where he/she promises to live a Jewish life of mitzvot and Jewish customs and I have them read it out loud. One woman just broke down crying when she read it. She explained that it was because this is what she has been trying to get to her whole life!
Today we begin the last book of Torah—Devarim. It begins: “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the wilderness, concerning the Arava, opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Chatzeyrot and Dizahav.” In last week’s Torah portion it listed all the places the Children of Israel traveled. The question is, why mention just these places? Rashi answers that these were the places where the Children of Israel sinned. Later Moses tells us that the Jewish people will be dispersed throughout the world because of their sins. In other words, Jews will be found everywhere. Well this past week Cheryl and I found Jews in the most unlikely place—Managua Nicaragua. It’s an amazing testament to the Jewish soul that it somehow survives even there.
Let me end by telling you about what happened after the weddings last Sunday. The final count of the Bet Din was 17 circumcisions—10 adults and 7 children; 114 conversions and 24 separate weddings. We literally helped birth 2 new Jewish communities! They are in desperate need of Spanish siddurim and chumashim and tallises. I will soon let you know how you can help me get these to them.
Once converted, all those who were married had to be married again under achupah. That, in and of itself, was amazing and joyous. As people began to leave I asked for help forming a minyan to say kaddish for my father. Soon, about 40 came outside the wedding hall with me (where it was cooler) to daven the maariv service. These people davened with such enthusiasm—with full voices on a main street. Think about that. These were not too long ago Jews who had hid their identity as Jews for 425 years. Now, outside on a man drag, in front of a Christian world, they fearlessly and proudly prayed out loud, with all their hearts, for all the world to see! Let us all be inspired to match their enthusiasm for Hashem and His Torah way of life. Amen!