Earlier this year, on a bright and sunny Jerusalem day, a young boy and his family celebrated a rousing – if somewhat belated – victory over the Spanish Inquisition and its henchmen.
As his mother and grandmother looked on, 13-year-old Baruch Israel donned tefillin for the first time at the Western Wall in advance of his bar mitzva, carefully wrapping the leather straps around his arm just as Jews have done for generations prior to reciting weekday morning prayers.
Only this was no ordinary rite of passage for Israel and his relatives: It marked the first time in more than 500 years that someone in his family was able to celebrate a Jewish male's entry to manhood and acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.
Born in the city of Elda in the province of Alicante in southeastern Spain, Israel and his family are Bnei Anusim (to whom historians refer by the derogatory term "Marranos").
Their Jewish ancestors were compelled to convert to Catholicism sometime in the 14th or 15th century, only to be hounded by the zealots of the Inquisition, who sought to stamp out any clandestine crypto-Jewish activity.
In the popular imagination, the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain are intertwined and often confused, even though the former began before 1492 and continued long afterward.
From the historical record, we know that as early as 1391 – a century before the expulsion of Spain's Jews – widespread anti-Semitic pogroms swept across the country, leaving thousands dead and many communities devastated. In the decades that followed, there were waves of forced conversions as part of an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment for Jews. This reached a climax in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave Spain's remaining Jews a dire choice: convert or leave forever.
Large numbers chose exile. American historian Howard Morley Sachar has estimated the number of Spain's Jewish exiles at around 100,000, while the Hebrew University's Haim Beinart has put the total at 200,000; others have spoken of even more.
But untold numbers of forcibly converted Jews, as well as those who voluntarily underwent baptism, remained.
Many of these Bnei Anusim (Hebrew for "offspring of those who were coerced") bravely continued to cling to Jewish practice, covertly passing down their heritage from generation to generation.
According to the late historian Cecil Roth, the Inquisition's henchmen murdered over 30,000 of these "secret Jews," while countless others were condemned for covertly preserving Jewish practices.
Their descendants now live throughout the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world, and in recent years a growing number of Bnei Anusim from across Europe, South America and parts of the US have begun to return to Israel and the Jewish people.
For Baruch Israel and his family, their homecoming began as a spiritual quest but culminated in the discovery of their ancestral birthright. As his mother, Sarah, explains, it was her mother, now known as Shulamit, who had spent many years searching, longing to discover "the truth of God's existence. She looked in vegetarianism, naturopathy, yoga, even different religions."
But none of them provided her with the answers, or meaning, that she was seeking.
Then, in 2007, she met Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, the emissary to Spain of Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair.
"It was then that we discovered our true identity," Sarah says, adding that "this need for soul-searching" turned out to be a deep-seated expression of her family's long-hidden Jewish roots.
Unexpectedly, Sarah recounts, a number of her family's unusual customs came into sharper relief. For example, each of her grandmothers had kept two kitchens in their homes, "one that was always clean and one that was not used," a practice perhaps suggestive of keeping kosher and separating meat from milk.
In the spring, her grandfather would clean the pots and pans in the kitchen in a curious manner by removing all the screws from the handles and immersing them in boiling water, which is similar to how kitchen utensils are rendered kosher for Passover.
"I remember saying to him, 'Grandpa, these pans are so cheap, why not just purchase new ones?'" Sarah recalls.
Her family never attended church, something that was a rarity in the rigorously Catholic town in which they lived, and they lit memorial candles each year for departed loved ones. And then Sarah learned that the family's surname, Pardo, was a traditional Sephardi Jewish name – one that had been shared by many prominent rabbis and communal leaders.
In 2007, Sarah attended Shavei Israel's annual seminar for Bnei Anusim in Spain, which was held that year in Palma de Mallorca.
"That was our first real contact with other people with Bnei Anusim origins," Sarah details. The family attended subsequent gatherings, and Baruch and his grandmother traveled to Israel for the first time on a Shavei Israel-sponsored trip. "All of these experiences gave us the encouragement we needed to move forward."
In the process, the family began living an observant Jewish life in Spain.
"We stopped eating any foods forbidden by the Torah, I put mezuzot up at home and began keeping Shabbat. Baruch was circumcised by a Jewish surgeon and mohel," Sarah relates.
Needless to say, the changes in their lifestyle resonated most profoundly with Baruch.
"If we were going somewhere, he could not eat many of the things served. He did not celebrate school events such as the carnival, which is really a pagan feast, nor did he go to school on Jewish holidays," Sarah remembers. Increasingly, "our family, friends, and neighbors, who knew we practiced Judaism, said we should go and live in Israel."
After undergoing a formal conversion to Judaism under the auspices of Madrid's Chief Rabbinate, the family made aliya in 2012 and settled near Jerusalem.
Sarah now works in a daycare center for children, while attending ulpan. ("I'm in level gimel now," she reports proudly.) Baruch, meanwhile, is thriving. "He has become completely Israeli, with many friends who love him," Sarah says. He's also doing very well in school, getting 100 in his Mishna, Torah and Talmud classes. "God has sent us wonderful people who watch out for our welfare."
Among those wonderful people are their neighbors, the Dimri family, fellow Spanish-speakers who have taken the new immigrants under their wing. Yonatan Dimri's influence has been particularly important, Sarah stresses, because Baruch grew up without a father (his parents divorced when he was very young). So when Baruch received his first pair of tefillin, it was Yonatan who showed him how to put them on and arranged for the ceremony at the Western Wall.
Sarah is elated at seeing her son become a bar mitzva in Israel, and fulfilling so many dreams – her own, as well as those of her Iberian Jewish ancestors.
"We are certain that our forefathers are happy for us and proud that we have returned to our people," Sarah says. "And they undoubtedly are savoring our victory over the Inquisition, which ultimately failed to achieve its aim of suppressing our family's Jewish souls."
Baruch says he now looks forward to joining the IDF after high school, so he can help to defend the Land of Israel and the Jewish people.
Across the world, there are many more Bnei Anusim like Baruch, Sarah and Shulamit, people whose Jewish ancestors were torn away from us against their will under the most dire of circumstances.
And a growing number of them wish to return.
With emissaries serving in Spain, Portugal, southern Italy and Sicily, in addition to Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador and other countries, Shavei Israel is now the largest organization reaching out to Bnei Anusim in the world today.
We do so because, as Sarah puts it so eloquently, "the Bnei Anusim are part of the people of Israel, and we are all responsible for one another."
It is time for the State of Israel to recognize the Bnei Anusim, extend a hand to them and welcome them back home. We owe it to them, as well as to ourselves, to right the historical wrong that was done to them. Despite the passage of more than five centuries, it is still not too late.