Jerusalem — Ten years ago Jay Sanchez was doing genealogical research on his mother’s family name, “Dorta.”
Sanchez, a 50-year-old lawyer who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, discovered that Dorta is an extremely uncommon surname in Puerto Rico, where 85 percent of the population is Catholic.
“So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the earliest Dorta I could find was a Meir Dorta, a signatory to the Jewish Ordinances of Tudela, Spain, in 1363, and that every single reference to a Dorta before 1492 involved a reference to their Judaism in Spain,” he said from his home in Howard Beach, Queens.
Sanchez discovered that every reference to the name from 1500 to the early 1600s involved either a Jew being forced to leave Portugal for Amsterdam or a “New Christian” in Portugal being arrested by the Inquisition.
The Dortas who made it to Amsterdam and Brazil held positions in synagogues, records showed.
“It occurred to me that the Dortas were not only Jewish, but were pretty committed to their Judaism, even risking the ire of the Inquisition, until the ones that had to live in lands governed by the Inquisition simply had to give up their Judaism in order to ensure their survival,” the lawyer said.
Sanchez’s search motivated him to start learning about Judaism at Congregation Shearith Israel-the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue on the Upper West Side, and to study Hebrew.
“Although I am not yet sure about conversion — although we have discovered that my wife, who is also Puerto Rican, may have some Sephardic ancestry, she is not as interested in conversion as I am — I have gotten my wife to agree to live with me for three months in Israel sometime in the future,” Sanchez said.
Last week a committee appointed by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs suggested that Israel reach out to the tens of millions of people around the world like Sanchez who have an “affinity” to Israel largely because their ancestors may have been Jewish.
The ministry, which is headed by Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, a settler supporter, created the committee in 2016 to discover how many people have Jewish ancestry and to propose an outreach program. Once these communities are identified, the committee said, Israel should launch a pilot program to teach willing communities about Judaism and Israel, and to offer Hebrew-language lessons. Those who express a strong and genuine desire to become Jewish should be assisted to convert and possibly make aliyah.According to the committee, an estimated 5 million have distant Jewish relatives while another 35 million are descendants of communities that were forced to abandon their Judaism. An additional 60 million people, whether descendants of mainstream Jews, Jews who were forced to convert or members of other communities, but who either don’t know about their Jewish ancestry or don’t care, are another group primed for potential outreach, the committee said.
In the report’s introduction, Dvir Kahane, the ministry’s director general, said connecting with “tens of million of people” could potentially foster “support for Israel and aid in the struggle against anti-Semitism.”
Reaction to the recommendations, which have not yet been approved, has been swift. Advocates in the “bring them home” movement welcomed the initiative with open arms, while others questioned the government’s ability to carry out such an ambitious initiative, as well as its motives.
An editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper theorized that “only demographic panic rooted in fear of losing Israel’s Jewish majority could explain the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s project to track down Jews in every corner of the globe and at any cost.”
An estimated 5 million have distant Jewish relatives while another 35 million are descendants of communities that were forced to abandon their Judaism.
At a time when the government is trying to find ways to expel most of the country’s remaining 38,000 African asylum seekers “and the rift with pluralistic Jewish movements has been steadily worsening,” the ministry “is instead preoccupied with tracking down potential candidates to join the Jewish people and immigrate to Israel,” the editorial continued.
Whether Israel would even be able to absorb millions of potential immigrants is another question. The country’s population (now 8.5 million) could more than double within 40 years, the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics has said. New Jersey, which is the size of Israel, has just 9 million residents.
Sergio DellaPergola, a Hebrew University expert in Jewish demography, said he doubts that millions will knock on Israel’s door, and even if they do, space isn’t the main problem.
“There are still areas, especially in the south, that can be populated,” DellaPergola said, noting that if Arizona — which is geographically similar to the Negev — can accommodate 7 million residents, the Negev could potentially do the same.
DellaPergola questioned why the ministry may reach out to millions of people who aren’t eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return at a time when it has failed to convert the roughly 400,000 Israeli citizens who immigrated under the Law of Return, most of them from the former Soviet Union.
“I would expect that the first concern of the government of Israel would be devoted to the 400,000, which absolutely isn’t the case. The rabbinate converts something like 5,000 of them a year.”
At this rate “it would take 100 years to convert half a million citizens. Their numbers are growing and the government’s policy is akin to emptying a boat with a tiny spoon,” he said.
At the same time, DellaPergolla said, members of Netanyahu’s government have essentially written off non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S., “which means eliminating 5 million American Jews. How can you on the one hand eliminate many Jews who are actively engaged? Have a serious dialogue with them instead of delegitimizing them.”
Ashley Perry, president of Reconectar, an organization devoted to “reconnecting” non-Jewish descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities to the Jewish world, said there is a “tremendous awakening” among the descendants “who want in some way to reconnect with their roots, their people, the Jewish world and Israel.”
Perry said that while some have shown interest in converting to Judaism “every person wants something different. There is no one size fits all” answer. “Some don’t want to change their lives. They just want to learn about their ancestry. Others want to return to the Jewish community and possibly make aliyah.”
Due to immigration from Latin America, “a very high” percentage of Latinos and Hispanics in the U.S. have Jewish ancestry, Perry said, adding that many have names typical of Sephardic Jews, from Castro to Perez.
Sanchez said that discovering his Jewish ancestry through his mother’s Jewish name has been life-changing.
“I try to instill an appreciation in my children of their Jewish heritage, which isn’t so easy, as we live in a primarily Sicilian/Napolitano neighborhood. Just the other day, my son asked me, ‘Dad, why can’t we just be Catholic like everybody else?’
“What is easier is instilling in my children and my family an appreciation of Jewish ethics. Come to think of it, it is the ethical dictates of Judaism that make me most appreciate” reconnecting with the Jewish world,” Sanchez said.