JTA / August 15, 2004
By Larry Luxner
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A small group of Puerto Ricans scattered in mountain towns south of San Juan have rejected the Christian culture that surrounds them and have embraced Judaism as the religion of their ancestors.
Calling themselves B'nei Anusim, about 30 people meet every Friday night for Shabbat prayers at Bet Hakodesh, a makeshift synagogue in Aguas Buenas. They come from nearby Caguas, Cayey and Cidra.
"We form a part of a project whose goal final is to return to Judaism," said Raúl Rivera, a physical education teacher who acts as the group's spokesman. "We study and use the Internet to get in contact with other people in the U.S. who are pursuing the same thing. It's a new approach developed by a group of rabbis to help anusim return to Judaism."
A website, www.gacetaanusim.com, is devoted to the anusim movement, which numbers in the thousands and is especially prevalent in Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean — anywhere the Inquisition forced Jews to worship their religion secretly. The descendants of these "marranos" or "conversos" often have names like Rodríguez, Gómez and Cardoso.
"Up to 90% of all Hispanics have some Jewish heritage," insists Rivera, 53, who along with his wife María and son Danny are studying halacha and the basics of Orthodox Judaism with Rabbi Baruch Lande of New Jersey.
Relations between Bet Hakodesh and the island's established Jewish community are weak, though Rivera and his fellow congregants get spiritual advice as well as kosher food from Chabad-Lubavitch.
Asked what started Rivera on his path to Judaism, he said: "It's impossible for us to accept the idea that the Messiah comes and dies without fulfilling the prophecies. We were all born and raised as Christians, so for many years, we lived believing in a false Messiah."
Rivera added that "we have to undergo a formal conversion because our parents were Christians and we were in idolatry, so we have no way to prove we have Jewish roots."
Eventually, he said, the entire community plans to relocate to a trailer park in north-central Florida, along with 40 or so like-minded Dominicans, Cubans and other Latin Americans.
One Puerto Rican Jew already in Florida is Marshall López, who left the island 21 years ago and now goes by his Hebrew name, Moshe ben Levy.
"Most of our people have a love for Israel, but they never understood why," he said, adding that until recently, "nobody told us that our ancestors practiced Judaism."