Modern day Exodus: the remarkable story of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim community

Modern day Exodus: the remarkable story of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim community

Eliyahu and Talya Franco (left) with members of Beit Israel visiting Israel from El Salvador

Eliyahu and Talya Franco (left) with Yael, Sophie and Veronika, members of Beit Israel visiting from El Salvador

Every Friday afternoon, an extraordinary modern day Exodus takes place in San Salvador. Between 50-60 Bnei Anousim make their way by bus and by car (but never by foot – that’s too dangerous!) to the Beit Israel synagogue in El Salvador’s capital. They carry with them a potluck assortment of appetizers, main dishes and desserts, along with a change of clothes for the weekend.

Once there, they place the food on hotplates connected to timers, then spread out mattresses to prepare for the weekly Shabbat sleepover in San Salvador’s only synagogue for the community. They eat together, pray together and have built a remarkably cohesive community in just a few short years. Add to that now the country’s first kosher mikveh (ritual bath), which opened during Hanukah within the Beit Israel building complex (see pictures below).

The creation of El Salvador’s only mikveh was made possible when, in May 2013, Shavei Israel appointed Rabbi Daniel Touitou as its new emissary to work with the approximately 300 Bnei Anousim in the country.

Eliyahu Franco, 28, the president of the Beit Israel synagogue in San Salvador and head of El Salvador’s national association of Bnei Anousim communities, was in Israel recently with several other community members, including his wife Batya. He sat down with us and shared more details on Jewish life in his country.

Beit Israel has been in existence for about five years, but only opened a formal synagogue in 2013, Franco explains. “Before that we gathered in small houses. Now we have everything: a Sefer Torah (Torah scroll), mechitza (partition between men and women used during prayer services), and bima (the platform upon which the Torah is customarily read). We’re still renting, but it’s a long-term contract.”

While it’s never easy to be Jewish so far from a substantial Jewish community, El Salvador is remarkably friendly to the Jews, Franco says. It’s not unusual to see a Magen David (Star of David) or a Menorah used as a design element on a sign on a bus or in front of a shop. Moreover, Franco wears his kippa (head covering) openly on the street “and people just come up to me and say ‘we love the Jewish people.’”

Franco thinks the affection may be connected with El Salvador’s history: between 30,000-50,000 Hungarian Jews were saved during the Holocaust in what was known as the “El Salvador Action.” In 1942, Colonel Jose Arturo Castellanos, El Salvador’s Consul General in Geneva, issued thousands of “citizenship certificates” to be distributed to the Jews of Hungary, enabling them to escape the Nazis. El Salvador was the only country during World War II to issue passports to Jews. (There is now a neighborhood in Jerusalem with an “El Salvador Street” to commemorate the life-saving gesture.)

Although many of the Jews who were saved during the Holocaust have since left El Salvador or assimilated, a positive feeling in the country as a whole remains, Franco asserts.

Franco, like many of El Salvador’s Bnei Anousim, has just fragments of a connection to his Jewish roots: his last name is known as one associated with the Bnei Anousim (it means “from France”), and his grandfather’s birth certificate listed his ethnicity as “Ladino,” the name of the Jewish language that’s a cross between Spanish and Hebrew. The villagers in his grandfather’s hometown were careful only to marry other community members (another sign of a secret history), and the name of the village was changed in the 1800s to “Jerusalem.”

Franco suggests that the location of the village along a river may have been to give the community access to a makeshift mikveh, making December’s dedication of El Salvador’s first kosher version all the more poignant.

Franco’s wife Batya explains that community members among El Salvador’s modern Bnei Anousim have long been scrupulous about the laws of family purity, which require the use of a mikveh once a month. “We were using a lake or going to the ocean, but that could be very scary and difficult sometimes,” she says. “We’ve been thinking about building a mikveh for several years now, but we didn’t have a place to do it and we didn’t know the specifications – where the water had to come from, what percentage needed to be from rainwater.”

The opening of the mikveh in December was also an opportunity for the full community to come together to celebrate. “Since it was Hanukah, we had lots of fried foods for the holiday,” Talya continues, “plus an inflatable castle for the kids with face painting, dreidels, a soccer tournament, and music in Hebrew. 200 people came, including the Israeli ambassador to El Salvador, Shmulik Bass. There were speeches, a Hanukah candle lighting, and Ambassador Bass ceremonially cut the rope.” The mikveh is called Taharat Israel, which means “purity of Israel.”

Now that the mikveh is in place, Rabbi Touitou has also been helping the community procure kosher products. With the Shavei emissary’s help, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) has been trained in Armenia, another town where Bnei Anousim live in El Salvador, and now the entire community has access to kosher chicken (“although not yet beef,” Talya laments).

The three members of Beit Israel who visited Israel along with the Francos were making up for lost time, visiting as many of Jerusalem’s kosher restaurants as they could in their brief two week visit, while soaking up all that the Jewish State has to offer. Two of them, Sophie, 23, a university student studying communications, and Veronika, 35, who works in public relations, hope to return to Jerusalem in the near future to learn in a midrasha – a woman’s Jewish studies institution. Yael, 37, a school teacher, is not sure she’ll be able to make the trip, but hopes that her 11-year-old son will someday come to Israel to attend a yeshiva.

In the meantime, all five will certainly return to El Salvador super-charged and ready to lead one of Central America’s most surprising and thriving young Jewish communities.

If you’d like to help support Shavei Israel’s activities for the Bnei Anousim in El Salvador, please visit our Support page. The next big event: Beit Israel has obtained its first kosher megilah from which they will read the Book of Esther on the upcoming holiday of Purim. Franco hopes that all the Bnei Anousim communities in El Salvador will come together to hear the ancient story of the Jewish people’s determination and faith in G-d to overcome even the most challenging circumstances.

Here are some pictures from the dedication ceremony for the new mikveh.

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Jeremy Zauder