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‘Lost’ Brazilian Jews Discover Their Ancestry

The Jewish population in Brazil is growing, as descendants of forcibly converted Jews are discovering their roots with the help of new genealogy tools and a charismatic rabbi, Religion News Service reported.

The ancestors of Bnei Anusim, or the “children of the coerced,” were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition, the 15th century crusade against Jews in Spain, Portugal and their colonies. Now, the Bnei Anusim are looking to reconnect with Judaism and achieve full recognition from their fellow Jews.

Many “New Christians,” as Jews were called after converting to Roman Catholicism, left their traditions behind, combined them with other ideas or abandoned religion altogether. Others, however, kept some practices, such as avoiding certain food and marrying within the community. They lived reclusively but kept in touch with similar communities around Europe.

The movement of returning to Judaism began in the 1970s in northeast Brazil, and has increased with improvements in genealogy. Rabbi Gilberto Ventura and his wife, Jacqueline, who live in São Paulo and run an organization called Synagogue Without Borders, also took an interest in the Bnei Anusim, leading a movement to help the traditional Jewish community accept them.

It’s a slow process, but it’s moving forward. Ventura hosted a summer camp for the community last year, and ten members of his synagogue are studying at yeshivas in Israel. The head of Jerusalem’s rabbinical court has endorsed his conversion process.

Alyssa Fisher is a writer at the Forward. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter at @alyssalfisher

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