Visiting Anusim in the Dominican Republic

When Jorge Yoram Torres moved to the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic he never dreamed he would become the founder of the largest congregation on that island Born in Westchester County New York he has lived in Puerto Rico and Canada A young Orthodox Jew Torres sports a beard a kippah and the fringes of his talit dangle outside his shirt His Spanish is perfect In 2005 Torres opened an internet café in Santo Domingo offering credit card and long distance calls fax facilities and a sales office for cell phones

Obviously Jewish it was inevitable that someone would approach him It wasn’t one of the members of the island’s two tiny Jewish communities but a Dominican who claimed a cryptoJudaic heritage What Torres discovered amazed him A large group of Dominicans had been meeting for over 25 years studying Torah weekly Many claimed Jewish roots

For over two and a half decades they had no serious contact with Jews until they met Jorge Torres Their leaders had made overtures to Santo Domingo ’s Jewish community for assistance but were rebuffed Now they were asking Torres for help He went to Kulanu an organization that assists “out of the way” Jewish communities Jack Zeller Kulanu’s coordinator called me and asked me to visit with the group and report on what I found

I arrived at Las Americas airport in October 2006 and was greeted by Torres and several enthusiastic members of the community My trip involved a mitzvah as it coincided with the Brit Millah of Jorge’s son which I attended Torres contacted a mohel from Brooklyn New York who would also be arriving that day to perform the service It was an auspicious event for the members of this community who had never seen or attended a circumcision

What I discovered was that this group was made up of about 3000 dedicated members some of whom alleged a cryptoJudaic background Because of time restraints I was only able to interview a dozen or so persons Those I did speak with claimed that one quarter to a third of them are descendants of early colonial Jews I heard the classical stories of grandparents and parents telling them that they were Jews or that there were odd rituals of candle lighting Friday nights or refraining from eating on certain days I was not there to determine the veracity of their claims but to make recommendations on how they might be helped I alerted Stanley Hordes and Seth Kunin who are studying crypto Jews in the Caribbean islands once belonging to the Spanish Empire They are now weeding out the claims and performing the necessary detective work to discover the true backgrounds of any Dominican anusim

The history of early cryptoJewish migration to the island of Hispaniola (Little Spain) discovered by Columbus on his first voyage to the West Indies is similar to that of the anusim of the Southwest Jews came secretly as warriors administrators and settlers Like all converted Jews they wanted to put many miles between them and the Office of the Inquisition Yet there are some differences Santo Domingo was the jeweled colony in the Spanish crown It was here that Columbus dubbed Admiral of the Ocean Seas by his sovereigns was also named GovernorGeneral of all his newly discovered lands It was in this city that Columbus established Spain ’s headquarters in the New World And it was in Santo Domingo that Columbus was buried as was his brother Diego During the 20 th century Columbus ’ remains were supposed to have been removed to Seville But there are those who insist that the Admiral’s bones still reside on the island of Hispaniola the wrong body having been removed to Spain According to the written agreement between Columbus and Ferdinand and Isabella the explorer was to govern all he discovered But Columbus was a failed administrator Neither he nor his brother Diego were able to control rebellious settlers The disgruntled among them accused the brothers of being Marranos : a very serious charge And the crown was aware that converted Jews were filtering into their possessions something they were determined to stop An edict directed to Hispaniola ordered that no “New Christians” ( Nuevos Cristianos) were permitted to settle on this island “Unto the third generation” they warned It was a harbinger of Adolf Hitler’s definition of Jews by blood and generation Yet historians tell us that every expedition to the New World originating from Spain contained crypto Jews

Dominicans broke away from Spain twice without a bloody revolution; the first time in 1844 after which they returned as a colony The final separation came in 1865 The island has always had a fine record with respect to Jews After its independence Sephardic Jews from Curacao and other Caribbean islands settled here openly and peacefully They intermarried with Dominicans melding into the population Their descendants have become the island’s Presidents politicians educators writers and leading intellectuals In 1938 shortly before World War II the brutal and infamous dictator Rafael Trujillo arranged to settle 100000 stateless European Jews on land he donated for that purpose located in the northern sector of the island in a town known as Sosua Surprisingly only 2000 refugees took up the offer Of those over half left within a decade A small but lively colony remains continuing the traditions of Mittle Europa in the midst of a tropical agrarian milieu There is a synagogue and a small museum with the remembrances of the places from which they came and the accomplishments in their new homeland of which there are many Trujillo went on to build a synagogue for Jews in his capital city of Santo Domingo then known as Ciudad Trujillo It is still used the by the city’s small contingent of Dominican Jews and Israelis

Knowing these facts I was surprised to see anusim but then I realized that that many of them came from rural areas In the days when there was no swift electronic contacts word of Trujillo ’s benevolence may not have reached them What I learned from the few people I did interview was that their ancestors settled in outoftheway places Apparently they did so in order to be inaccessible to the agents of the Inquisition

This group has a remarkable history For the past 25 years they have met on the Shabbat reading from the only version of the Torah available to them: just one precious book written in Spanish and containing the Five Books of Moses It has been lovingly circulated amongst the community’s leaders Taken home by one of them weekly the Book then studied and used by that person as he led the group for his appointed week With no Jewish guidance as to the established meanings of the passages the community followed the Bible literally as they understood it For Passover they took a lamb into the woods and slaughtered it kosher style

When they met Torres their lives began to change He held Rosh Ha Shonah and Yom Kippur services in the spacious courtyard of his home They rallied to purchase a building with a sanctuary classrooms and dormitories for men and women so that they might observe the Sabbath without traveling For Hanukah Torres successfully petitioned the government for permission to erect a huge menorah in one of Santo Domingo ’s busiest intersections Torres didn’t stop there; he got the government to donate land for a synagogue a Jewish cemetery and a Jewish hospital A rabbi has consented to help bring them back to Judaism and possible aliyah to Israel

That there are crypto Jews in the Dominican Republic there is no doubt Who and where they are and their approximate numbers has yet to be determined Perhaps pending studies by Hordes and Kunin will tell us


HARRY EZRATTY is a marine attorney who lived many years in Puerto Rico He is a member of the SCJS Board

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