By Rabbi Barbara Aiello
“I researched my family name and found out that its origin is Sephardic. This was one more confirmation that a Jewish soul was present in my family, confirming that my interest in Judaism is a true feeling to get back to my origins.” M. C. 2019 convert to Judaism
On July 16 and 17, 2019, M. C. traveled to Calabria to join 13 candidates to complete the year long process to become Jewish. M. C. was one of several students awarded a Status Recognition Certificate to formally connect with their lost Jewish roots.
B’nei Anusim is a Hebrew phrase that means “Children [of the] forced ones,” and refers to the descendants of Jews who were forced into Christian conversion 500 years ago during Inquisition times. Historians believe that there are approximately 250,000 “b’nei anusim” throughout the world, many of whom are longing to recover their Jewish traditions that were so cruelly stolen from them during the years of Jewish persecution five centuries ago.
In fact, here in Calabria, in the deep south of Italy, historians and archivists feel confident in their estimate that nearly 50 percent of the population of Calabria and Sicily has lost Jewish ancestry. Matteo C. is only one of hundreds of southern Italians who now have an opportunity become Jewish in a way that combines on line study, meetings with a mentoring rabbi (on Skype internet video telephone) and a face to face, in person, conversion experience that includes the traditional examination before a Bet Din and mikveh (ritual immersion) in the Mediterranean Sea.
Mario lives in a tiny village in northern Italy. Caterina lives on Lipari, in the Aeolian Islands. Carlo lives and works in a small German village, several hundred kilometers from a synagogue or Jewish community of any kind. Despite their geographical challenges Mario, Caterina and Carlo were determined to find a way to return to their Jewish roots. Thanks to the online, affordable Jewish Studies program pioneered by Darshan Yeshiva, all three students are able commit to one year of weekly lessons, monthly meetings with me, their mentoring rabbi and participation in live online Shabbat services held in synagogues worldwide.
Learning modules include material on Jewish history, from ancient biblical times through the present day, Jewish holiday and life cycle events, studies on Jewish prayers and blessings and basic Hebrew – all designed for students to proceed at their own pace. Through written responses, quizzes and tests, a mentoring rabbi assesses student progress – all of which form the basis for discussion during individual meetings between rabbi and student.
A Personal Relationship with a Rabbi Mentor
Each month for at least one hour, sometimes more, I serve as the rabbinical guide to my Darshan Yeshiva online students. We meet online via Skype and our video classes include practice in learning to live a Jewish life. We welcome Shabbat together by practicing the appropriate blessings and we conclude Shabbat by actually making Havdalah together, again, via Skype.
My students study learning modules that correspond to the upcoming Jewish holidays so that when the holiday arrives they are able to understand its meaning and share the ritual with family and friends. Together we produce E-Books (an example is attached: (https://drive.google.com/drive/search?q=type:pdf) that feature the specifics of how students have observed each major and minor Jewish holiday.
Face to Face, In-Person Conversion
Following a year’s study students join me in Calabria for their formal conversion to Judaism. Male candidates gather under the tallit to make the appropriate brit milah/hatafat dam brit blessings after which each candidate sits for an examination before a Bet Din of three rabbis, or two rabbis and one learned Jew. They arrive prepared to answer any of 40 questions posed by the Bet Din and are given ample time to formulate and express their answers. Spouses, partners and significant others are invited to join the discussion and where a partner is not Jewish or not making conversion, the Bet Din rabbis emphasize ways to maintain “Shalom Beit” or “peace in the (interfaith) home.”
The Mediterranean Mikveh
It is seven o’clock on a brilliant sunny morning as 14 students, their spouses, parents and friends board the bus that will take them to the Mediterranean Sea where candidates will immerse in the natural flowing waters to begin their lives as Jewish men and women. Prior to entering our Mediterranean Mikveh, Bet Din judge, Rabbi Guy Hall of London shared words from Prophet Ezekiel: “With pure waters I will purify you … a new heart I will give you and a new spirit will I place within you.”
Candidates then recited the appropriate blessings, concluding with the Sh’ma and as they emerge from the sea each candidate is called by her or his chosen Hebrew name. Following the ritual immersion, candidates, rabbis and guests make Kiddush on the beach.
Presentation of Certificates and Mazel Tov All Around
Our two day conversion experience concluded with the presentation of formal conversion certificates along with Status Recognition certificates for those who embraced their lost Jewish roots. Each student also receives a membership certificate to our Calabria synagogue, Ner Tamid del Sud (“the Eternal Light of the South”) – a recognized affiliate of the Reconstructionist Jewish movement.
During our two days together students had the opportunity to visit our Bet Din Library and select a book to begin their personal Jewish collection. In addition, donated ritual items from our sister congregation in New York City, The Society of Jewish Science included Kiddush cups, tallitot and mezuzot filled our students’ “Goody Bags,” while other activities included a workshop on wrapping tfillin, learning how to write one’s own Hebrew name, a concert featuring Jewish music and round table discussions on the joys and challenges of a convert’s first year as a Jew. Thanks to a generous contribution from Kulanu, the international organization that supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities, we were able to assist students with their transportation and hotel expenses.
What are students’ impressions of the conversion experience that creatively combines technology with tradition? Student and now “new Jew” A.L. shares her thoughts:
I cannot begin find the words to tell you how happy and thankful I feel for everything you and your team have done for all of us! The (,mikveh at the) beach, the Synagogue, the concert, the Beit Din, the little town in Italy where it all took place … So many precious moments. for all of us.” A.L. Jew-by-Choice
Rabbi Barbara Aiello is Italy’s first female rabbi. She has served communities In Italy, Greece and the US and now works with conversion students through Darshan Yeshiva.Rabbi Barbara is a descendant of crypto-Jews who were forced into Christian conversion but who practiced in secret.
She is the founder and spiritual leader of Calabria’s first active synagogue in 500 years since Inquisition times, “Ner Tamid del Sud.” Contact her at Rabbi@RabbiBarbara.com