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Spanish and Portuguese Speaking Jews

For centuries, one of the strongest and most powerful Jewish communities could be found on the Iberian Peninsula, in the geographic area known among Jews by its Hebrew name Sepharad. Beginning in 1492, Jews were dispersed from Sepharad, forced out by the Inquisition that demanded—on the threat of death—conversion or migration. Many of the Jewish immigrants settled in North Africa, Turkey and Greece. But others, ventured as far as the New World, only to encounter the long reach of the Inquisition as part of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism. Living under the dangerous gaze of the Inquisition, in Europe or abroad, many Jews abandoned their religious heritage while others were observant in secret, underground.


Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews are a tremendously important historic and contemporary element of Jewish life. The dual legacies of the Inquisition and Spanish/Portuguese colonialism provide the backdrop for the reality of many of today’s Jews. They were once part of the largest, most vibrant and culturally significant Jewish communities. Currently, Spanish speaking Jews, and by extension the much smaller community of Portuguese speaking Jews, are not a unified cultural, geographic or religious whole, but multiple individuals and groups whose unique stories intersect and diverge.


At Be’chol Lashon we work with a variety of different groups, embracing the distinctive needs and concerns of each community as well as the points of intersection and connection. With the help of Rabbi Juan Mejia, Be’chol Lashon provides significant Spanish language resources to those seeking to explore, embrace or connect to Judaism. Be’chol Lashon works with Jewish leaders throughout Central and South America to understand the needs and concerns of Jewish individuals and communities. In North America, we work with Jewish leaders, organizations and institutions to help them better understand the needs of Spanish speaking Jews and Latinos interested in engaging in Jewish life. And as with every community, we provide educational resources to help anyone interested in learning about the rich history or contemporary culture of the diversity of Spanish speaking Jews.


1. Sephardim
2. Recent Jewish Immigrants to Latin America
3. Anusim
4. Jewish life in Contemporary Spain and Portugal
5. On Jewish Journeys in Latin America
6. Jews and Jewish Journeys in North America
7. Emerging Communities


1. Sephardim

Jews who trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula are known as Sephardim, which is Hebrew for those who come from Spain. Sephardic Jews traditionally spoke Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish dialect. However, many modern Sephardim do not even speak Spanish and do not necessarily identify with contemporary Spanish speaking Jews, who may or may not be of Sephardi heritage.


The term Sephardic today is often used to encompass Jews who do not have historical ties to the Iberian Peninsula. For example, many Mizrahi Jews now follow the liturgical traditions of the Sephardi and are sometimes colloquially referred to as Sephardic Jews. Many Mizrahi may consider it culturally inaccurate to label them as Sephardic, while other Mizrahi themselves have come to accept this generalized classification.


For more information about Sephardi Jews continue reading here


2. Ashkenazi or recent Sephardi or Mizrachi immigrants to Central and South America

In almost its entirety, the organized Jewish communities of Central and South America are 19th and twentieth century immigrants. These relatively new immigrants came to the New World to escape extreme poverty or anti-Semitism, with some coming only after surviving the horrors of the Holocaust. The overwhelming majority of the organized Jewish community in South and Central America traces their roots back to Central and Eastern Europe with only a small minority coming from North Africa or the Middle East. While those who live in Spanish speaking countries speak the local language, Latin American Ashkenazim who speak Spanish do not identify as Sepharadim. The Ashkenazi traditions of Europe tend to dominate institutional and cultural life in the region.


Though the sizes of these communities vary from country to country, from tiny to among the worlds largest, together they represent a significant portion of contemporary Jewish life worldwide. The Jewish communities of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico are numerically strong and have significant communal infrastructure including schools, social and sports clubs, kosher food, and summer camps. Yet, Jewish life outside the largest cities is often less well developed. Smaller communities like those found in Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica or Uruguay are often quite tightly knit.


Whatever the size of the community, Anti-Semitism is a challenge for Jews in South America. Anti-Israel sentiments in some countries as well as more historic forms of Anti-Judaism can be a significant concern. In the 1990s two terrorist attacks on the Jewish community in Buenos Aires left over 100 dead. Yet Panama is the only country outside of Israel to ever have two Jewish heads of state.


There are wide range of religious affiliations in South and Central America. Orthodoxy dominates but there are liberal, Conservative and Reform, synagogues in many places.


3. Anusim

The word anus is Hebrew for one who is forced and anusim is the term for those who were forced by the Inquisition in 15th century Spain or Portugal to publically convert and profess Catholicism. Historically other terms, such as marrano (a derogatory term from the Spanish for pigs) or conversos (which downplays the lack of agency experienced by those force to convert) were used in place of anusim. Even today people who trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula’s historic Jewish community but who have not lived openly as Jews for generations are known as anusim or b’nei anusim (children of anusim) Anusim and B’nei Anusim can be found all over the world, but are found in larger concentrations in the Southwest of the United States, Central and South America, Spain and Portugal.


Individual levels of current of engagement, interest in, or identification with Judaism vary widely. While Be’chol Lashon recognizes the critical importance of the historic connection of B’nei Anusim to Judaism and is glad to facilitate understanding and learning about Judaism for B’nei Anusim we uphold the belief that no matter the historic connection conversion is necessary for living fully as part of the modern Jewish people.


4. Jewish life in Contemporary Spain and Portugal

In addition to a modern immigrant Jewish community, recent years have witnessed a revival of interest in Jewish life more generally in Spain and Portugal. In big cities like Barcelona there are established Jewish communities and schools but throughout the country there are a growing number of groups coming together with lesser and greater formality and structure to explore and embrace Jewish life. Some of the individuals in these emerging communities are “returning” to Judaism after 500 years while others are drawn to Jewish life with no prior connection. The Spanish government has been very supportive of these efforts to revive Jewish life and connection and is also willing to grant citizenship to Jews who are coming to Spain as part of a return to historic roots.


One particular effort being made by the Spanish government to support the revival of Jewish life by restoring historical sites can be found in Lorca where in 2003, during the initial round of excavations to build a national hotel ("parador nacional") on the grounds of the 15th-century Castle of Lorca in the southeastern Spanish province of Murcia, workers discovered a stone wall and several fragments of glass that would turn out to be the remains of an early medieval synagogue and Jewish quarter previously unknown to archeologists and historians.


The synagogue is the only one of its kind in Spain: while all other synagogues of its era were converted to mosques or churches, this synagogue has never been used by another faith. Since its discovery, archeologists have excavated the synagogue in its entirety, as well as a treasury of artifacts and a complex Jewish quarter of streets, plazas, and eleven houses, two of which contain mikvehs or Jewish ritual baths.


5. Spanish speakers who are on a Jewish journey in Central/South America

Increasingly, there are small numbers of Spanish speakers in Latin America that are on a Jewish journey. Historically, Catholicism dominated religious life in Central and South America. The religious fluidity that has long been normative in the United States was not a significant issue. Several changes in the last decades have changed that dynamic and opened up possibilities for people in the region to examine and consider Judaism as a path for themselves or their families. The rise of Evangelical Christianity in Latin America has challenged the religious monopoly of the Catholic Church. Once the monolithic dominance was brought into question, other religions too became possible venues for religious expression and experience, Judaism among them.


Another factor in the growth in interest in Judaism is the internet. In a region where books about Judaism are not always easy to come by, internet has opened up access to those interested in learning first hand about Judaism. Additionally, media attention to the State of Israel. Though press about the Jewish State does not necessarily portray Judaism in a positive light, the ongoing attention to the Middle East has heightened awareness of Judaism as a contemporary and not simply biblical reality.


Though the number of people with genetic or historical connections with Jews is quite large throughout South and Central America, the number of people on Jewish journeys is not large. Nor are all those who explore Judaism necessarily going to take the steps necessary to officially become Jews.


6. Spanish speaking Jews or individuals on Jewish journeys in North America

Though exact numbers are hard to come by, Jewish migration from South and Central America has increased over the last 20 years. These Jews represent the fully diversity of Jewish life in Central and South America. Their particular cultural experiences of Judaism have the potential to enrich the already diverse tapestry of North American Jewish life and should be welcomed and celebrated as the gift that they are.


Additionally, as the overall number of Latinos, who are overwhelmingly not Jewish, grows in the United States, there is need to consider their encounters with the Jewish community, as individuals or as members of Jewish families. Some of this encounter occurs as intermarriage across ethnic and religious lines becomes increasingly acceptable affecting both immediate and extended families and by extension their communities.


7. Emerging Jewish Communities

In contrast to the majority of Jewish communities globally which either have deep historic roots or are the results of migration, there are a number of communities world wide where the majority of the membership (60% -100% in the first generation) are newcomers to Judaism or returning after generations of disconnection. Though these communities face their own distinct challenges with regards to tradition, religious infrastructure, and leadership, with support these communities can and do thrive. Such communities exist in Africa, Europe, Central and South America.


Be’chol Lashon works with leaders in many emerging communities to provide them support and connection. We believe that in order to be strong and successful, these communities need knowledgeable leaders who are able to invest in education and to promote indigenous expressions of Judaism. In the best-case scenario, the local community will sponsor a member to receive the Jewish training needed for leadership. In the absence of professionally trained leadership, communities need to connect with reputable non-local rabbinic and organizational leadership to ensure education and training in the language of the community.


Be’chol Lashon believes that becoming Jewish is a significant commitment that should not and cannot be entered into lightly. It demands ongoing study, practice and communal involvement as well as the support of a rabbi. Be’chol Lashon takes a strong stance against those who would profit or exploit those who have a genuine interest in learning about or exploring Judaism.