Now, 500 years after all Jews were expelled from Sicily, a tiny Jewish community, some descended from Iberians whose ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism in the 14th and 15th centuries, and still preserved Jewish traditions; and are now rediscovering their roots and returning to Judaism; will open its first synagogue in the island’s capital city of Palermo.
At an official ceremony, the Catholic Archdiocese of Palermo transferred to the Jewish community a chapel, which was built above the ruins of the Great Synagogue that once stood in the center of Palermo. The transfer took place on the 500th anniversary of the January 12, 1493 decree that demanded the expulsion of Jews from Sicily during the Spanish Inquisition. Sicily, at the time, was ruled directly by the kings of Spain via governors and viceroys.
Shavei Israel, which is committed to rebuilding Jewish communities around the world and reinforcing their links with Israel, said the Palermo synagogue would revitalize the local community. “Ever since I learned about Sicily’s history, my goal has been to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the first Jewish community in Palermo in more than five centuries,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel. “This is something that would have been unthinkable 50 or 100 years ago. “I am grateful to the archbishop of Palermo for having the vision and courage to make such a grand gesture of reconciliation.”
The synagogue, which will include a study center and a Jewish heritage center, will be overseen by Rabbi Pinhas Punturello, the former chief rabbi of Naples. “It is a miracle that after more than 500 years there are still people in Sicily who proudly cling to their Jewish roots and it is a testimony to the fact that neither the expulsion nor the Inquisition was able to extinguish the Jewish spark in their hearts,” said Freund.
Jews have had a presence in Sicily for more than 1,400 years. They were not persecuted when the Muslims ruled Sicily, but in the generations after the Muslim rulers were defeated Jews suffered forced conversions and systematic persecution culminating in the 1493 decree. At the time there were between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews in Sicily.
In Spain, Poland, Germany, North and South America and Africa there are thousands of converts to Judaism who have rediscovered their Jewish ancestry. Many Rabbis say that a majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors.
Indeed, the Jewish mystical tradition, claims that the souls of most converts to Judaism are the reincarnated souls of Jews in previous generations that were cut off from the Jewish people.
Sometimes these souls are descendants of Jews who were part of whole communities that were cut off, like the Marranos of Spain and Portugal, or European Jews in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust and then Communist oppression.
Other times they are descendants of individual Jews who married out and did not raise their children as faithful Jews. An example of the later from England is recounted by Rabbi Barbara Borts: “One of the most touching conversions I ever did was a young girl of 11, brought to me by her mother, to discuss Judaism.
The mother was a widow, living back at home with her mother and her father, who was a minister. This girl had done some research on Hanukkah for her school class, and in the process both loved what she learned and discovered that her late father’s grandfather was a German Jew.
I asked her mother why she would support this. Her response was that her two daughters were no longer going to church, and she was delighted that one of them had found a religious home. When I said that I could not imagine doing what she was doing if the positions were reversed, she said, ”It’s different for Jews, after the Holocaust and all.”
So, the girl started Hebrew school classes, and attending services. I moved a couple of years later, and bequeathed her to the next rabbi. Some years later, we met up again when she was in University. She had converted, changed her name permanently, was an active member of a Jewish student organization, and planed to become a Rabbi; she may even now be in rabbinical school.”
Most of the time people who become Jewish do not find out that they have a Jewish ancestor until years after their conversion. Every human on earth has 8 great grandparents and 16 great great grandparents. Each of these 24 individuals contributes an equal amount of genetic material to their descendants.
Nevertheless, brothers or sisters who share the same 24 ancestors do not have identical genomes. Unless they are identical twins their physical, mental and personality traits always differ, sometimes greatly, from siblings who share the same physical genetic heritage. This difference is the result of the unique physical combination of genes that occurs at conception; and the unique soul that enters the body sometime during the second trimester.
Every year many hundreds of people find out that one or two of their 24 ancestors might have been Jewish. For most of them this discovery is an interesting fact of little significance. For many of them it might be an embarrassment to be ignored.
But for some of them it becomes a life changing discovery. They feel drawn to Jewish people and seek to learn about Jewish music, food, literature, culture and religion. They feel more and more attached in some mysterious way to the Holocaust and the struggle of Israel to live in peace in the Middle East.
Many of these people eventually are led to become Jewish either by formal conversion or by informal reversion within Reform synagogues.
According to a mystical 14th century Jewish Kabbalistic teaching found in Sefer HaPliyah, those people who do feel this powerful attraction to Jewish things and Jewish people, have Jewish souls that are reincarnations (gilgulim) of one of their own Jewish ancestors from 3-7 generations in the past.
That explains why they react to the discovery of some Jewish heritage in such a unusual way. It also explains why many people who do not even know that they have Jewish ancestors follow a similar path; and only discover a Jewish ancestor years after they have returned to the Jewish people.
The Hebrew word for reincarnation is gilgul which means recycling. Many people are born with new souls who are here for the first time. Others have a soul that has lived on this planet before.Many people do not reincarnate after their life on this earth is over.
Most people who end up becoming Jewish, especially now, after the Jewish people have experienced several generations of assimilation, marriage to non-Jews, hiding from anti-semitism and outright genocide, are descendants of people whose children, in one way or another, have been cut off from the Jewish People.
Among their non-Jewish descendants a few will inherit a Jewish soul that will seek to return to the Jewish people.
If you know people who you think might have an ancestor who was Jewish, but no one in their family seems to know, you can give them the following introspective personality and character test to aid them in discovering some hints:
1- Do you like to ask questions especially about religion? But when you asked them as a child, you were told faith is a gift from God and you shouldn’t question it. This never satisfied you, although others didn’t question it.
2- The trinity never made any sense to you even as a young child. You prayed to God the father more easily than Jesus, the son of God, even though you were told to pray to Jesus. You never could believe that people who didn’t believe in Jesus couldn’t go to Heaven.
3- On first learning of the Holocaust you reacted more emotionally than your friends or other members of your family. You feel some sense of connection with the Jewish struggle to defend Israel.
4- You have an attraction to Jewish people, or to Judaism and Jewish culture. You have always been more open to people who were culturally, nationally or religiously different from your own family, than your friends or class mates.
If you answer yes to three of these four items you probably have Jewish ancestors. Many, but not all, people who answer yes to all four items will be interested in learning more about their Jewish roots. If you become very interested in studying Judaism you might have a Jewish soul.
According to Jewish mystical teachings (Kabbalah), many (not all) people reincarnate after they die. This is especially true for Jews who died and had no Jewish children who survived them (Sefer HaPliyah). Their souls reincarnate in one of their non-Jewish descendants who is drawn to: Jewish things, Jewish people and Judaism. If the following item also applies to you, you certainly have a Jewish soul.
5- When you start to learn about Judaism: the ideas and values seem reasonable to you; the traditions and heritage are very attractive to you; and the non-Jews around you as well as you yourself, are surprised that you slowly come to feel that you are coming home.