Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hispanic Christians as Jews in Israel?

Orlando Sentinel reported: [sent by Jersey Girl]

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Wendy Canelones wondered about the custom of her grandmother and great-grandmother, lighting candles on Friday afternoon. She assumed it was just a habit. It wasn't until adulthood that she learned they were carrying on the Jewish tradition of welcoming the Sabbath with candles. Eventually she discovered she was of Jewish heritage — and came to understand her early fascination with that culture and religion.

"The blood of Abraham is in us," said Canelones, 37. "It calls us." She now works with Aliyah Sepharad International, a Sanford-based group for Hispanics of Jewish ancestry. Its ultimate purpose: to go live in Israel. [...] Many of their descendants therefore grew up not knowing their heritage. This is changing.

"There is a phenomenon with what we call returning Jews," said religion professor Nathan Katz of Florida International University, in Miami. "They make up a significant percentage of synagogues."

Gary Fernandez, who heads Aliyah Sepharad International, said his organization is the only one in the United States that works to help Sephardic Jews return to Israel. "God promised the Negev [southern Israel] to the people of Sepharad," said Fernandez, citing the biblical book of Obadiah. He said he discussed his plans with the manager of the city of Negev. But Fernandez, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up Christian, will first have to overcome a few hurdles.

Before allowing anyone to move to Israel under the Law of Return, Israel requires evidence that at least one grandparent was a practicing Jew. Descending from Jews alone is not enough, Katz said.

The alternative is to convert to Judaism. But because they also believe in Jesus, this could complicate matters. "Most authorities in Israel would argue that the religion they practice is not Judaism," Katz said.

Fernandez understands what he's up against. "Someone has to start somewhere," he said. "If it is going to take years to navigate this process, we'll do it."

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