A True Story of 9 Rabbis And A Letter
This story is happening NOW in Brazil. 9 Rabbis from the Sao Paulo Vaad (Rabbinical Court) sent a threatening letter “in the honor of Torah” to Shavei Israel’s emissary, “gently demanding” him to stop his work while accusing him of proselitism.
I manage writing in English but I won’t fool you: there will be grammar mistakes and typos, BUT the information is important and needs to get out of the “forgotten Portuguese domain”. Regardless if you approve or disapprove Shavei’s work, you’ll agree that all questions I raise are valid, because they deal with halachic principles. I thank you in advance for your patience.
So, what’s happening exactly?
In a nutshell, Shavei Israel has sent emissaries to various countries around the world in the past few years. Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, Portugal… and finally in July 2015 the news that Shavei Israel sent an emissary, Rabbi Bennun, to work with brazilian Bnei Anussim.
Who are these Brazilian Bnei Anussim? They’re the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during Inquisition. Nobody knows for sure their number… Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? We’ll never know for sure, the so called descendants of Bnei Anussim can be found all around the country. And they’re many. I am one of them, by the way. Inquisition was abolished in early 19th Century.
Why all the fuss with Shavei, if they want to be jewish, why they don’t just convert? THAT’S THE POINT!!!!!!!!!!!! I know it will sound the weirdest thing in the world, but there’s NO beit din for orthodox gerut in the WHOLE SOUTH AMERICA. Brazil is in South America. No orthodox beit din for gerut there.
Why do they need a conversion? There's no chazaka for Bnei Anussim?
If a descendant of Bnei Anussim can NOT prove his/her matrilineal descent, there's no chazaka.
If s/he can "more-less" prove it (without any document) he might undergo a 'conversion of doubt', which is done is a shorter time than a regular conversion because the candidate already is familiar with most jewish practices. I have no idea if any 'conversion of doubt' was ever made in Brazil. I have no idea who a candidate for a conversion of doubt should inquire further information on how to proceed with it.
If s/he can not prove anything at all and is not familiar with jewish practices, than a regular conversion takes place, a process that in average lasts 2 years.
Take my case for example: my grandmother taught all sort of "weird customs to attract good luck" to my mother and her 7 sisters... my grandmother was severe and beated hard any of her children who dared to not follow the orders... my grandmother learned such "weird customs" from my great-grandmother... who learned from her family (her mother died while she was still a child, so the family took care of her until the widower of my great-great-grandmother kidnapped my great-grandmother (taking her to another city) remarried a woman who was not familiar with any "weird custom" and had more children... thus, my great-grandmother had minimal contact with the only family she knew, her mother's family who taught her the "weird customs to attract good luck"... BUT... there's no way to prove that the mother of my great-grandmother had a jewish mother... I can't prove that, sorry, there's no chazaka for people like me who can't prove anything... so, in my adult life, I went through a regular conversion process.
So what’s the deal with potential converts? I don’t know what goes on in other South American countries, but I can speak for mine: in Brazil, there’s no straight deal with potential converts. It’s not like in North America, where a candidate can just schedule an interview and have his case treated in a ‘normal’ fashion.
So no orthodox conversions AT ALL? That’s a tricky question…
There’s no orthodox beit din for gerut in Brazil, but at the same time, some individuals who are willing to convert approach a few orthodox rabbis in Sao Paulo who deal with this subject (out of Sao Paulo is a no-hope land for conversions) and then a wild and bumpy ride get started…
The few candidates who are selected (the selection is not based in holy predicaments only… skin color, profession, physical beauty and financial condition are part of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ trial) face all sort of not-so-nice situations along the process.
It’s extremely expensive to do this orthodox-brazilian-style conversion. Prices can reach up to US$10,000.00.
The price includes: private classes + air ticket to candidate + air ticket to whoever the beit din sends to supervise the candidate (translator, rabbi etc.) + hotel in NY or Israel + mikva fee.
There are those rumors of “miracle stories” that sincere candidates didn’t pay a dime, but… there are way more testimonies of people who gave up and even an story recently published in the news of a brazilian couple who decided to move to Israel and do their conversion there because they got tired of what happens in Brazil.
How much is an average salary in Brazil? US$ 500.00 a month is considered in average a GOOD salary.
No, you read it right. It’s not per week, it’s per MONTH.
An above than average salary can go from US$1000 to US$2000 MONTHLY.
Above US$2000 monthly, the person is considered rich.
Cost of life is high in Brazil… don’t think on starting some business there dreaming about the low cost… corruption and a HUGE bureaucracy scares all international investors. The low cost salaries don’t pay off the headaches international investors get when they land in the country.
So… how long do you think it will take for a US$500.00 monthly salary pay for a US$10,000.00 conversion?
Back to the story of the 9 Rabbis and the threatening letter The letter signed by Rabbis Jacob Begun, Henrique Begun, Eliahu B. Vait, Efraim Laniado, Meir A. Illiovits, Isaac Dichi, David Weitman, Itzchak D. Horowitz e d'Ratzfert accused the Bennun couple of “searching” for the “bnei anussim population”, “proposing them conversion” and commiting “proselitism”.
Then, at the end, the letter says that if “The Bennun Couple” continued with their “activities of proselitism”, the Rabbis would be then “obliged by the honor of Torah”, “take actions under halacha” against the couple. The letter that arrived to R. Bennun on December 3rd, leaked to Facebook on December 9th.
What was the reaction to the hundreds of of bnei anussim who were studying Judaism under the guidance of R. Bennun, the until then Shavei's emissary to Brazil? Despair, tears, surprise, doubts, hatred, frustration… you name it.
Everything that could be felt on that day, was felt. I got so stressed that ended up sick.
Why did I get so stressed about it? Because I care for doing the right thing, the right way.
If the Sao Paulo Vaad felt at any moment to cut off R. Bennun’s work, they could have at least given him a call to clarify any doubts the rabbis of the Vaad had.
But… they didn’t.
There was no meeting between the Vaad and Rabbi Bennun. There was no phone call either. There was just an unexpected letter that eliminated in one punch all the plans, dreams and Torah learning for ALL Shavei Israel’s students.
Is Shavei ever going to send another emissary to Brazil? I don’t know. They never said a word about what happened to R. Bennun and never answered any of my messages done on the ‘Contact Us’ of their website or posts I wrote on 2 of their Facebook pages, in English and Portuguese.
The Portugese language offers a safe haven for all sort of situations lived by the Brazilian Jewry.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell That’s the ‘Brazilian Way’ of dealing with problems related to conversion.
- Shavei Israel has not yet commented on the issue
- CONIB, a type of ‘national’ version of Federation that supported the arrival of Shavei in Brazil and supported R. Bennun the whole time also has not yet commented on the issue (I bugged their Facebook page as well… no answers… never. I bugged them before relating other issues and whoever answers that page, oh boy, he is fast… he answers everything, but… not even one single word about the happening involving Shavei or R. Bennun’s being forced to quit his job)
What better solution than pretend that nothing happened and wait patiently that everybody forgets that there was ever a problem? That’s the path that Shavei Israel and Conib took.
Oh, I forgot to tell you. Yes, the threatening caused so much distress on R. Bennun that he quit his job as Shavei’s emissary.
To cover all the bases, the threatening letter he received in the beginning of December was the straw that broke the camel’s back, I must say. The pressure, disrespect, stress and despise he faced from Brazilian Jewry since his arrival in July was mind boggling.
I can't stop questioning about this... I'd love to understand what happened exactly.
Yes, I have questions. Yes, I have doubts.
I will list some of my doubts to you:
1. why was the letter sent to the “Bennun Couple” instead of solely to “Rabbi Bennun”?
2. why the letter never calls R. Bennun by what he is, a RABBI?
3. why the letter never mention Shavei Israel? After all, R. Bennun was not on vacation in Brazil, he was at work.
"To the Ben Nun Couple,
It got to our knowledge your activities of searching for the population that call themselves descendents of Anussim and propose them conversion.
This topic requires only the attention of the competent authorities, recognized poskim and due to the opposition of Rishon Letzion Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef Shlita, chief rabbi of Israel, referring to these activities,
We come here through this letter gently demand that you stop immediately these proselytism activities.
In case you keep in this route we will be obliged by the honor of Torah, to take actions foreseen in the Halacha.
1. how a Jew could explain the first paragraph of this letter? “It came to our knowledge”… how exactly it came to the knowledge of the 9 rabbis that R. Bennun was doing PROSELITISM?
2. who told the Vaad of Sao Paulo such information that WAS NOT INVESTIGATED BY THE VAAD? Someone who has a personal grudge against the Bennuns? Could it have been a lie? Was it a complaint coming from a neutral and truthful source?
3. why wasn’t R. Bennun called for a meeting, even a Skype meeting for goodness sake, in order to check if the facts regarding the serious accusations against him were true?
4. the letter accuses the Bennun couple of “searching for” the bnei anussim with the purpose of “proselitism”… how exactly did the Bennuns search for the bnei anussim? Panphlets? Knocking on their doors? DID THEY REALLY SEARCH or is this just a misunderstanding… or… a FAKE accusation done against an innocent, an accusation that was never investigated?
5. the letter accuses them of “proposing conversion” to the bnei anussim they were “searching”… it’s well known in Brazil THROUGH CONIB’S OWN WEBSITE that R. Bennun never proposed conversion to anyone… on the contrary, he always repeated everywhere he went, including events promoted by Conib that Shavei Israel was not offering and not proposing any conversion. I read it several in Conib’s website and Facebook page “R. Bennun says there will be no conversions. R. Bennun says that he is not here to convert anyone” etc, etc, etc. 6. If the accusation done against the Bennuns is FAKE… shouldn’t the Vaad, Shavei Israel or Conib talk about it, rectify their misjudgment and punish whoever created a whole net of lies that caused an innocent to quit his job due to severe distress?
7. The "recognized poskim" mentioned in the letter... are they in the the famous list that R. Seth Farber insists the Rabbanut has???????? The Vaad of Sao Paulo has a list of “recognized poskim” that deal with conversions… is it related to the Rabbanut list in anyway?
You can read about this polemic list here: http://www.cjnews.com/news/israel/israeli-secular-court-to-rule-on-orthodox-conversions and here:
http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.557523)!!! Mas o R. Seth Farber continua com o processo. Rabino Seth Farber runs ITIM, www.itim.org.il.
8. Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef… why is he ever mentioned in this letter?
DOES HE KNOW THAT HIS NAME AND AUTHORITY WAS USED in this letter? Is he aware of what is happening in Brazil or was his name used just to scare the Bennuns?
It’s hard for me to believe that a matter that was NOT properly INVESTIGATED, had no meeting called to solve it and that resulted in a “surprise letter” to make an innocent quit his job would be… endorsed, let me put like that… by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Again, does he know his name was used on this letter?
Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar is very supportive of the return of the bnei anussim through conversion.
Do both Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Israel and Jerusalem hold different opinions on this matter?
And even if they hold different opinions and Chief Rabbi Y. Yosef is indeed against the return of bnei anussim… HOW DOES HE NEVER SAID ANYTHING TO THE OTHER SHAVEI ISRAEL EMISSARIES THAT WORK WITH BNEI ANUSSIM IN OTHER SOUTH AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN COUNTRIES?
Why would the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Y. Yosef only go after the Brazilian bnei anussim? I don’t know the answers… I have doubts… many doubts… serious doubts...
I will keep questioning until someone answers me. Thank you for reading,