08 Feb Jewish discoveries during Shavei Israel speaking trip to Chile
In Santiago, Chile, a religious Jewish family employed a young woman as a maid. Normally, the maid worked just during the day, but on one Friday, the family asked her to put in a bit more time, to help them with an important Shabbat dinner they had planned. As the sun was beginning to set, the family lit candles as is traditional to mark the onset of the Sabbath.
The maid watched the ceremony and was dumbstruck. When the blessings were finished and all the children had received their Shabbat kisses and hugs, the maid couldn’t hold back her curiosity. “My grandmother…” she said, hesitating at first, realizing that what she was about to say might forever change her life, “…she also lit candles like this on Friday nights. I just never knew…that it was a Jewish custom.”
At that moment, the maid realized that she too might have Jewish roots; that her family were very likely descendants of Anousim, Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism 500 years earlier and who had held onto their Jewish identity for centuries as a closely guarded secret.
This is just one of the stories that Edith Blaustein, Shavei Israel’s deputy director-general in charge of administration, heard during a recent speaking tour to Chile. It was a trip filled with discoveries and new connections.
During one of Blaustein’s stops, for example, she met with Dr. Gabriel Dukes who heads up the research division of the Psychoanalytic Society of Chile. Dukes had recently learned about Shavei Israel’s activities with “lost” tribes and “hidden” Jewish communities around the world and had become fascinated by the spiritual awakening of Jews who have only recently discovered their Jewish identities.
“A person in Poland for example who has hidden her Jewishness all her life but can’t die without telling the next generation, this is something very special,” Dukes told Blaustein during the trip. “What does this mean in psychological terms? What does it mean for the hidden neshama, the Jewish soul that must get out into the world?”
Blaustein was the ideal Shavei Israel staff member to meet with Dukes and other members of the 25,000-person strong Jewish community in Chile. Born in Uruguay, where she received her master’s degree in education, in 2002, Blaustein moved west to became the executive director of the Jewish Education Council of Chile, in charge of 1,400 pupils from nursery school through 12th grade. She served in the job for six years until her aliyah in 2008, so she knows the Chilean community well.
Blaustein’s return in November 2015 was a homecoming of sorts. “The community has changed a lot since I left,” she says. “Now they have a lot more kosher food, synagogues, kosher restaurants. Some of that was already happening when I left, but now it’s much more significant.” She is also proud that the school she headed has continued with the unique educational methodology she set in place: it is a fully trilingual institution, with classes taught in Spanish, English and Hebrew.
During Blaustein’s visit, she also met with other Jewish groups, including a gathering of 50 directors of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) in Chile. “The topic for all my meetings was Shavei Israel,” Blaustein says. “People were so interested to learn more. They didn’t know how many countries we work in and on so many different issues – the Bnei Menashe, Subbotnik Jews, the Hidden Jews of Poland, China. They also want to receive our new book on Jewish Roots.”
Shavei Israel published the 109-page Spanish-language “Do You Have Jewish Roots?” in August 2015. It was so popular that the thousands of requests for downloads of the free eBook in the first 48 hours crashed the special website they had set up. The book was subsequently published in Portuguese and Shavei Israel is now working on a translation into Italian and another into English.
In Israel, Blaustein not only manages all things administrative in Shavei Israel’s Jerusalem office, she teaches in Shavei Israel’s Machon Miriam Spanish and Portuguese-language conversion and return institute. Some of her students have come from Chile. And she’s been the “adopted mother” to two young men who came from Chile to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Blaustein’s trip to Chile was organized as part of Shavei Israel’s ongoing “speaker’s bureau,” where interested groups can book a Shavei Israel staff member to visit their community. Laura Ben-David, Shavei Israel’s director of marketing & new media, recently returned from a two-week whirlwind trip across the U.S., speaking to close to a dozen different communities. Shavei Israel’s coordinator for the Bnei Menashe Tzvi Khaute, organized a special musical performance for Hanukkah at the OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.
If you would be interested in arranging for a speaker from Shavei Israel to come to your community, please contact Rachel in the Shavei Israel office.
The impact can be profound. Following Blaustein’s visit, Dr. Dukes in Chile has put together a proposal for conducting research, including visual and oral testimonies, with the Bnei Menashe in northeastern India. “This is a population that has been isolated and which has [nevertheless] remained pure, maintaining [many] traditions of the Jewish people – probably the last group on earth with so many people,” he wrote to Blaustein. “There’s probably no better opportunity to study the force that sustains our people. The mystery of the identity and survival of the Jews may be found here!”
What amazing projects and discoveries will come up after a visit by a Shavei Israel speaker to your community?
We have some pictures from Blaustein’s trip to Chile below.