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Reconectar Brings Numerous Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jews Back to their Roots

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Ashley Perry is helping an unprecedented number of descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities wishing to reconnect with the State of Israel and the Jewish world.

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Ashley Perry (Perez) is president of Reconectar (Spanish and Portuguese for “reconnect”), a project aimed at facilitating the reconnecting of descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the Jewish people.  He is also director-general of the official Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Communities.

As explained on the Reconectar website, the Bnei Anusim – literally, children of the forced ones – “are the contemporary descendants of those Jews who were forcibly converted, beginning in the 14th century.”

Due to the near-impossibility of escape during and following the years of the Spanish Inquisition, the site continues, the Ansuim were separated from the Jewish people for over five centuries, although increasing numbers have begun emerging publicly in modern times, especially over the last two decades. Many remarkably still adhere to Jewish customs and traditions that had been retained as family traditions, frequently in secret, such as lighting Shabbat candles and not mixing meat with milk.

Perry, who made Aliyah (immigration to Israel) from London in 2001, hails from a Spanish/Portuguese (Sephardi) background. He holds a BA (Honors) in History from University College London (UK) and an MA in Government from the IDC Herzliya. Prior to his current position, he was a strategic consultant and public relations adviser to many Israeli, Jewish and international organizations and companies and has held several prominent government roles, including adviser to Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister.

A married father of four – three girls and a boy – Perry and his family have been living in the Judean city of Efrat since 2004.

In the following interview with United with Israel, Perry discusses his passion for the Reconectar project.

Coming from a Spanish/Portuguese background, did you grow up very aware of the issues facing the Bnei Anusim? Was there a sizable community in London, or did you grow up mainly among Ashkenazim?

I made Aliyah from London in 2001. We are from one of the oldest (Perez) families in England; around 350 years ago we were invited, from the Sephardi community in Amsterdam, to live in England. It was always my dream to come home to Israel. I was brought up in a very Zionist family and my family was an advisor to the likes of [Israeli Prime Ministers] Levi Eshkol, Zalman Shazar and Golda Meir in the 1950s and 1960s.

Bnei Anusim

The Bet Eliahu synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal. (Bricking/ WikiCommons)

I grew up in the oldest Jewish community, the Sephardi community in England. However, today, the overwhelming majority of Jews are Ashkenazi so, like most places in the Western Diaspora, even though the Sephardim were the original Jewish community, today it is largely defined by Ashkenazim. The Jewish school I went to taught Ashkenazi history and traditions. A lot of my understanding of my own roots, history and traditions I had to do independently or with the help of a cousin who has traced our family line back to the 16th century.

Is your wife from a similar background?

My wife is Ashkenazi. She was born in Washington, DC, but was brought to Israel by her family when she was only a few weeks old. She has now embraced the Sephardi culture and I raise my children in the Western Sephardi tradition.

What inspired you to become so active on behalf of the descendants of Sephardi Jews?

I have always been aware of the Anusim, and before I was in Government I had the only column in an English-language newspaper (The Jerusalem Post) solely devoted to Sephardi issues, it was called The Sephardi Perspective. I was approached by some people who had conducted some very extensive and conclusive research stretching back seven years, which indicated that there are well over 100 million descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities around the world and that very high numbers wished to reconnect in some way with the State of Israel and the Jewish world. There is an absolutely unprecedented opportunity to help these people reconnect, and I remain extremely excited about the sheer possibilities and positive ramifications of this historic reconnection.

To this end we created Reconectar, People fill out a short questionnaire, and we provide a highly individualized automated response to each of them according to their background, needs and desires. We also ask Jews to sign up to personally help in this effort. We have many other activities and are actively dealing with many individuals, families and communities across the globe, but primarily in North and Latin America and Europe.

What are some of the organization’s accomplishments?

First and most importantly, our market and academic research has confirmed that there are at least 15 million people descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities but outside of the formal Jewish world, who never lost their Jewish identity.

Purim with Anusim in Brazil

Purim with Spanish/Portuguese community in Brazil (Reconectar)

The number of people who are learning about their Jewish ancestry and would like to reconnect in some way is two or three times this number and growing by the day thanks to DNA and genealogical advances and simple internet research and searches. We now know how to find these people and filter them into groups according to identities, backgrounds, needs and aspirations.

We created, for the first time ever, an official Knesset Caucus for the Reconnection with the Descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities with the representation of politicians from across the political spectrum. The idea for the Caucus was inspired by Member of Knesset Robert Ilatov, who is the chair. Our first event at the Knesset attracted over 350 people, including senior politicians, foreign ambassadors, academics, religious leaders and Jewish organizational leaders from Israel and across the Diaspora; 100 people flew to Israel just for this event from such diverse places as Brazil, New Zealand, France and the U.S. Thousands more watched the event from around the world through live streaming.

We held other events in partnership with organizations such as the World Jewish Congress and Netanya Academic College with hundreds of participants.

We have coalesced all the major experts, organizations and stake-holders in this area under the Knesset Caucus.

We have helped publish Jewish materials like a Purim Megillah (Scroll of Esther) and a Passover Hagaddah in English, Spanish and Portuguese for Anusim around the world.

We opened Facebook pages in English, Spanish and Portuguese with thousands of followers and tens of thousands of people reading our material from all over the world, all achieved without any marketing or advertising.

We are receiving tens of messages and emails a day from people across the world who want help finding out about their roots and reconnecting with the Jewish People.

We opened our Reconectar website a month ago and already it has been viewed thousands of times and hundreds of people have signed up to our system, again without any marketing or advertising.

Jewish refugees from Arab lands in a transit camp in Israel. (Wikipedia)

Jewish refugees from Arab lands in a transit camp in Israel in the early years of the state. (Wikipedia)

In the next couple of weeks we will be launching a mobile application for our website “Name Your Roots,” which has amassed over 300,000 visitors and tens of thousands of sign-ups.

Are the Israeli establishment and world Jewry supportive of this initiative?

I am amazed and extremely encouraged by the positive feedback and support I have received from all areas and levels of the Israeli and Jewish establishment. Some have called it the most important initiative for the 21st century.

We have received letters of support from many leading figures, including, for example, President Reuven Rivlin, former President Shimon Peres, Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, the leading rabbi for the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi community and other politicians, decision-makers and opinion-shapers from Israel and the Diaspora. We are in talks with several leading international Jewish organizations about official cooperation and partnerships, and have discussed cooperation with many leading Latino/Hispanic organizations in the U.S. and Latin America.

We have also organized several pro-Israel demonstrations in North and Latin America consisting of Anusim.

With all this success, can you name any particular initiative that makes you most proud?

I am especially satisfied that I played a significant role in placing the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab countries onto the national and international agenda and was instrumental in helping to establish the law whereby Israel now has a day of commemoration for the Jewish refugees.

By: United with Israel Staff