Pope Meets the Founder of Shavei Israel

SHAVEI-1Pope Francis met with Shavei Israel Founder and Chairman Michael Freund in Krakow. As part of his visit to Poland, Francis travelled to the former extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich introduced Pope Francis to Freund, whose organization, Shavei Israel, aims to strengthen the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world.

Francis and Freund discussed how a growing number of young Poles are rediscovering their Jewish roots. Today there are approximately 4,000 Jews registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of others throughout the country who are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland” have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Ancient Chinese Jewish Community of Kaifeng Celebrates Hanukkah

Shavei-2A few dozen Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, China, gathered tonight with an emissary of the Shavei Israel organization to celebrate the first night of Hanukkah and light the traditional menorah candles. “The Chinese Jews take their inspiration from the Maccabees,” said Shavei Israel Chairman and Founder Michael Freund. “Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly. Kaifeng’s Jewish descendants are a living link between China and the Jewish people.”

Shavei-1Freund added that even “after centuries of assimilation, a growing number of Kaifeng’s Jews have begun seeking to return to their roots and embrace their Jewish identity. They are trying to figure out why it’s important to be Jewish and we want to help them have a stronger Jewish identity.”

Scholars believe the first Jews settled in Kaifeng, which was one of China’s imperial capitals, during the 8th or 9th century. They are said to have been Sephardic-Jewish merchants from Persia or Iraq who made their way eastward along the Silk Route and established themselves in the city with the blessing of the Chinese emperor.

Kaifeng SynagogueIn 1163, Kaifeng’s Jews built a large and beautiful synagogue, which was subsequently renovated and rebuilt on numerous occasions. At its peak, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Kaifeng Jewish community may have numbered as many as 5,000 people. But widespread intermarriage and assimilation, as well as the death of the community’s last rabbi, brought about its demise by the middle of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, many of the families sought to preserve their Jewish identity and pass it down to their descendants, who continued to observe Jewish customs. Currently, there are estimated to be approximately 1,000 Jewish descendants in Kaifeng. In recent years, Shavei Israel has helped a number of young Chinese Jews from Kaifeng to make aliyah to Israel.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in more than a dozen countries and provides assistance to a variety of communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to by the derogatory term “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.

Bnei Menashe Celebrate Yom Haatzmaut in India

— by Jake Sharfman

Over 1200 members from the Bnei Menashe community of northeastern India celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut and the resumption of their Aliyah to Israel yesterday with a festive celebration in the town of Churachandpur in the northeastern Indian state of Manipur.

The gathering, which was sponsored and organized by the Shavei Israel organization, was the largest in the Bnei Menashe community’s history. Just last October, the Israeli government lifted a five-year ban on the Aliyah of Bnei Menashe in a unanimous decision. Since then, over 270 Bnei Menashe have been brought on Aliyah by Shavei Israel.

More after the jump.
“This Yom Ha’atzmaut is particularly poignant for the Bnei Menashe,” Shavei Israel Founder and Chairman Michael Freund said.

With the resumption of the Aliyah from India, the community’s dream of returning to the land of their ancestors is finally coming to fruition. In the coming months, with G-d’s help, we aim to bring another 900 Bnei Menashe back home to Zion.

“There has never been such a joyous event like this before in our community. We are celebrating in spirit with our Bnei Menashe brothers and sisters who have already made Aliyah to Israel in hopes that we will be joining them very soon,” said Yochanon Phaltual, a Bnei Menashe member who organized the event.

To celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut with the realistic hope of making Aliyah soon fills my heart with joy. I was especially moved when we all stood up and sang Hatikvah. That was a very special moment for me and I really hope that we can all sing it together next year in Jerusalem.

First Public Seder in Five Centuries on Portuguese Island Madeira

— by Jake Sharfman

Tomorrow, on an isolated island tucked away deep in the Atlantic Ocean, some 600 miles from the European continent and 300 miles away from Africa, a most unusual Passover Seder, sponsored by Shavei Israel, will be taking place. Thirteen Jews, many of them Bnei Anousim — descendants of Jews who were forcibly converted to Catholicism more than 500 years ago — will gather in Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira, to celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. It will be the first public Seder held in centuries in a region that once had a thriving Jewish population until the Inquisition arrived, even in this remote location, so far from the mainland.

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The Madeira Seder will be led by Marvin and Danby Meital, an American-Israeli couple with a keen interest in crypto-Jewish history. Shavei Israel is sponsoring the Seder, providing funding to make it possible and also supplying the participants with specially designed Portuguese-Hebrew Haggadot. The Jerusalem-based Shavei Israel organization aims to help descendants of Jews across the world reconnect with the people and State of Israel.

“The holding of a Seder in Madeira is truly historic,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund.

More than 500 years after the expulsion of Portugal’s Jews in 1497, the Bnei Anousim are returning to our people. Since Passover commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage, we feel it is especially symbolic to be holding a Seder for the Bnei Anousim in Madeira, for they too are now emerging from the spiritual captivity of the Inquisition.

Freund added that, “It is incumbent upon Israel and the Jewish people to reach out to the Bnei Anousim and facilitate their return. Through no fault of their own, their ancestors were torn away from the Jewish people. Our task now must be to bring them back.”

Marvin Meital, who will be leading the Seder together with his wife Danby, is originally from Boston and has had a passion for Portuguese ever since he came on a junior year abroad program in Israel in 1958. He had the choice to room with the other Americans on the course or with a separate group from South America. He figured he’d learn more Hebrew by hooking up with the non-English speakers. Instead, he fell in love with their language. He went on to teach Portuguese literature and language at the University of Wisconsin and, after making aliyah in 1974, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as well. The Meitals were sent several times to Portuguese-speaking Brazil as representatives of the Jewish Agency.

Marvin and Danby made a connection with the Bnei Anousim community several years ago when the couple was invited to Palma de Mallorca in Spain to help lead a group Seder for Spanish Chuetas, as descendants of Mallorcan Jews are known. (Marvin is also a trained Cantor.) This year, the Meitals wanted to do it again and they set their eyes on Madeira, a popular resort which sees about a million tourists a year and is an important stopover for commercial and trans-Atlantic passenger cruises.

But they had no guests. So they contacted Shavei Israel’s emissary to the Bnei Anousim in Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas. “We asked him if he knew of any Jews in Madeira,” Marvin explains. Rabbi Salas replied that he knew exactly the dinner guest who’d be perfect for the Meitals Seder table: a Bnei Anousim woman who has been studying with him in Belmonte. She jumped at the chance to join in and signed up, along with her three children. She then recommended another family. And another. “It kind of snowballed from there,” Marvin says.

The Meitals rented a hotel room with its own kitchen. The facility’s management has proved particularly hospitable. “They stocked our room with all new utensils; with pots and pans, and extra chairs for the guests,” Marvin says. “We’re bringing in the matza and wine from Israel, and all the plastic goods. We’ll go shopping for fruits and vegetables when we arrive.” (There’s no kosher food available on the island).

While Madeira has no real Jewish community to speak of today, there are traces of a more recent Jewish past. Attracted by the city’s wealth and natural advantages, Jews from Morocco arrived in 1819 and set themselves up in the cloth trade. More arrived as refugees from the First and Second World Wars. A synagogue was built in 1836, but it has long been closed and today houses a laundry and a café. A Jewish cemetery dating back to 1861 remains, perched on the edge of a cliff; it has fallen into disrepair and some graves have actually fallen into the sea.

True to Madeira’s prosperous past, the expected guests at the Meital’s Seder table come from their own impressive backgrounds. Danby Meital relates that in attendance will be a shipping magnate, a cartographer, a food and beverage industry executive, and one man who is actively studying Kabbalah “but doesn’t admit to being Jewish himself.”

With such a diverse group flying in from the mainland — Madeira is an hour and a half flight from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon — Marvin expects discussion around the Seder table to be lively. The narrative of the Exodus — which aims to bring alive “in every generation” the physical and spiritual transformation from constriction and slavery to joyous freedom — is one that is highly relevant for Bnei Anousim rediscovering their roots today.

“Pesach is a night of questioning,” Marvin says. “A time to ask. When anything goes and everything is new. We ask, why is this night different from all others? There’s a sense of wonderment here.”

And that is a fitting description for the 13 participants in Madeira’s first Seder in half a millennia.

The 2,000th ‘Lost Tribe’ Bnei Menashe Immigrant Arrives in Tel Aviv

Mirna Singsit, 18, from the state of Manipur in northeast India, is the 2,000th Bnei Menashe Olah to make aliyah to Israel. She arrived in Israel last week along with 53 other Bnei Menashe community members from Manipur on a group flight facilitated by the Shavei Israel organization. Immediately after landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Singsit received a special certificate from Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, officially recognizing her as the 2,000th Bnei Menashe member to reach the Jewish homeland.

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Mirna Singsit is making aliyah with both of her parents and three brothers. She left behind her grandparent, four uncles and two aunts in Manipur to fulfill her lifelong dream of living in Israel. Singsit was a student at Churachandpur University in Manipur studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, which she hopes to continue in Israel and eventually become a school teacher.

“I’m so very happy right now I can hardly express it in words. Not only has this been my dream since I was born, but it has been my peoples’ dream for thousands of years and now it has finally come true,” said Singsit upon her emotional arrival in Israel. “I still don’t know where my parents are planning to move after our time in the absorption center, but I personally dream about living in Jerusalem, the Holiest place on Earth, and hope to move there sometime in the very near future.”

“This is an incredibly emotional day for all of us,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund as he welcomed Singsit and her family to Israel. “The arrival of the 2000th Bnei Menashe immigrant is a milestone for the community and for the Jewish state. After 27 centuries of exile, the lost tribe of Bnei Menashe is truly coming home. But we will not rest until all the remaining Bnei Menashe still in India are able to make aliyah as well,” Freund added.

Singsit and Freund

Last October, the Israeli cabinet passed an historic and unanimous decision which formally restarted the Bnei Menashe aliyah after a five year hiatus, and granted Shavei Israel permission to bring an initial group of 275 Bnei Menashe to Israel. The immigrants came on five flights over the past month, all of which were facilitated by Shavei Israel and sponsored by Jewish and Christian philanthropists, foremost among them the ICEJ.

Upon arrival, the Bnei Menashe are taken to Shavei Israel’s absorption center in Givat Haviva where they will reside during their initial months in the country. Subsequently, they will move to the cities of Acre and Migdal Haemek in the north of Israel. The new arrivals join the 1,725 Bnei Menashe who are already living in the Jewish state, and have become an integral part of Israeli society. Before this most recent aliyah, the last Bnei Menashe flights to arrive in Israel were in 2007 carrying 230 Olim, and in 2006 carrying 219.

The Bnei Menashe (Hebrew for “sons of Manasseh”) claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 27 centuries ago. They live in India’s northeastern border states of Manipur and Mizoram. Their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries, before settling in what is now northeastern India, along the border with Burma and Bangladesh. Throughout their exile, the Bnei Menashe nonetheless continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, including observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, celebrating the festivals and following the laws of family purity. And they continued to nourish the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors, the Land of Israel.

The Bnei Menashe who currently live in Israel reside in the cities of Jerusalem, Ma’alot, Karmiel, Nitzan and Kiryat Arba. Around 7,000 still remain in India, waiting for the day when they too will be able to return to Israel and the Jewish people. Shavei Israel is the only organization that is working on behalf of the Bnei Menashe.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening ties with the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the “Bnei Menashe” of India, the “Bnei Anousim” in Spain, Portugal and South America, the “Subbotnik Jews” of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, the “Hidden Jews” of Poland from the Holocaust era and others.

First Jewish Cultural Center In Portugal In More Than 500 Years

— by Brian Blum

Isaac Cardoso was a Jewish physician and philosopher born in the small village of Trancoso, Portugal, in 1603 to a family of Bnei Anousim (people whose Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism more than five centuries ago and whom historians refer to by the derogatory term Marranos). Cardoso and his family fled Portugal to escape the Inquisition, eventually resettling in Venice. They weren’t alone: the town of Trancoso, once home to a flourishing Jewish community was, by the time the Cardoso family left, nearly emptied of its Jewish population. It has been that way for 500 years.

The full story after the jump.
Now Cardoso is back — in name, at least — with the establishment of the Isaac Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation: the first Jewish cultural and religious center in Portugal in half a millennium. Last week, the Mayor of Transcoso, Júlio José Saraiva Sarmento, and Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund signed an historic agreement regarding the opening of the center, which will include an exhibition about the Jewish history of Portugal and the renewal of Jewish life in the region in recent years, as well as a new synagogue called Beit Mayim Hayim — literally, “the House of Living Waters.”

This past June, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Portugal, Rabbi Elisha Salas, visited Trancoso to affix a mezuza — the first in the village for hundreds of years — to the entrance of the synagogue during the Center’s dedication.

Under the agreement announced last week, the Trancoso municipality granted Shavei Israel the right to administer the Center and organize Jewish cultural, educational and religious activities on its premises. These activities will be overseen by Rabbi Salas. Jose Levy Domingos, a Trancosco resident who serves as an advisor to the mayor, will be the municipality’s liaison and will work closely with Rabbi Salas.

The main work of the Center will be outreach to the many Bnei Anousim who reside in the area. “I believe the new cultural center will play an integral role in assisting those Bnei Anousim who wish to return to the Jewish people,” said Michael Freund at the ceremony.

For centuries, Transcoso was home to a large number of Bnei Anousim and it has a riveting history. We are now making great strides in providing the opportunity for a renewal of Jewish life in the region for those who seek it.

For his part, Mayor Saraiva Sarmento emphasized the Center’s importance, saying:

This center is very important to the people of Transcoso and all of Portugal. I am sure that it will leave its mark on the region, and it signifies our commitment to recalling the past and rebuilding Jewish life.

Domingos added a personal note, saying that:

Thank G-d, we have the strength to continue. We start today with hope and faith, and we shall arrive in the end to join all the sons of Israel in Zion.

The Center’s construction is estimated to cost about $1.5 million and it is likely to attract increased tourism to the area. But perhaps even more important, it will “commemorate the countless Portuguese Jews who were persecuted, displaced or forcibly converted more than five centuries ago,” said Freund. The Center will include two exhibition halls, public assembly rooms, a small garden and video projection systems.


Transcoso, situated in northeastern Portugal, had a large Jewish community in the 14th and 15th centuries. By some estimates, nearly half of Trancoso’s population was Jewish; none of its 5,000 residents are today. Jewish merchants first arrived as early as the 12th century. They were bolstered in the following centuries by Jews who migrated from the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, located in what is now modern Spain.

Trancoso today is a well-preserved medieval town dominated by a castle with a walled enclosure.  One of the best-known Jewish historical buildings in the village is the Casa do Gato Negro (“The House of the Black Cat”), so named for a sculpture of the Lion of Judah situated high on an exterior wall facing one of Trancoso’s ancient streets; it used to serve as a synagogue and rabbi’s residence. One of Transcoso’s most famous Jews was the mysterious Banbarra (1500-1545), a shoemaker and poet, who prophesized the future of Portugal and was a source of inspiration for many writers.

As for Isaac Cardoso, after whom the Center is named, after arriving in Venice, he and his brother Miguel publicly embraced their formerly hidden Judaism. Isaac Cardoso went on to publish a number of important works on philosophy, medicine and theology, including an important treatise defending Judaism and the Jewish people from various medieval stereotypes, such as ritual murder accusations and the blood libel.

25 Young Poles Discover Jewish Roots and Arrive in Israel

— by Jen Glantz

JERUSALEM (August 21, 2012) – 25 young Polish Jews, many of whom have only recently discovered their Jewish roots, arrived in Israel yesterday, August 20, for a special seminar organized by Shavei Israel, an organization that aims to strengthen the connection between descendants of Jews and the State of Israel & the Jewish people. The participants, between the ages of 18-35, most of whom were raised Catholic, came from a variety of cities throughout Poland, primarily Krakow, Katowice, Warsaw, Przemysl and Gdansk. For many it marks their first time visiting Israel.

Photo credit: Mariusz Frej. Courtesy of Shavei Israel.

More after the jump.
“There is a growing thirst among young Poles with Jewish roots to learn more about their Jewish religious and cultural heritage,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund. “This awakening would have been unthinkable just 25 or 30 years ago, but since the downfall of Communism, an increasing number of Poles have sought to reclaim and affirm their Jewish identity. We owe it to them to assist them in any way that we can.”

Freund added that,

with the start of the new Jewish year just a few weeks away, it is fitting that these young Poles have come to Israel to rekindle their bond with the Jewish people. They represent the future of Polish Jewry, which despite decades of suffering and persecution is now beginning to thrive. There can be no sweeter revenge for what was done to us seven decades ago in Poland than to reconnect as many of these young Polish Jews as possible with Israel and the Jewish people.

The unique program, which is run by Shavei Israel’s team of Polish-speaking rabbis and educators, is designed to assist them in discovering more about their Jewish roots and learning more about ancient and modern-day Israel. Among the topics that will be covered are the laws of Shabbat; the upcoming festivals of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot; and “Keeping kosher in a non-kosher world.” Participants will also study the weekly Torah portion that is read in synagogue.

Sessions will be led by Rabbis Baruch Babaev, Yitzchak Rappoport, Avraham Rabitz and Dawid Szychowska, along with Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow, Rabbi Boaz Pash, and its emissary to Katowice, Rabbi Yehoshua Ellis. Morning, afternoon and evening prayer services will also be available.

Not only will the young Poles delve deeper into Jewish study in the classroom, but they will also have an opportunity to tour various sites in Israel such as Masada and the Dead Sea, and the northern part of the country including the Sea of Galilee and the Kabbalistic city of Safed. The group will also visit the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem and explore the Western Wall tunnels.

Two special activities include a meeting with the Polish Ambassador to Israel, and an all-day study seminar at a local yeshiva.

Today, there are approximately 4,000 Jews registered as living in Poland, but experts suggest there may be tens of thousands of other Jews in Poland who to this day are either hiding their identities or are simply unaware of their family heritage. In recent years, a growing number of such people, popularly known as the “Hidden Jews of Poland”, have begun to return to Judaism and to the Jewish people.

Shavei Israel is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Freund, who immigrated to Israel from the United States, with the aim of strengthening the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel and the descendants of Jews around the world. The organization is currently active in nine countries and provides assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India, the Bnei Anousim (referred to as the derogatory “Marranos” by historians) in Spain, Portugal and South America, the Subbotnik Jews of Russia, the Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, descendants of Jews living in Poland, and others.  

Shavei Israel currently has two full-time emissaries in Poland located in Krakow and Katowice.