In the past two generations, a development unprecedented in Jewish history has started to emerge. Growing numbers of people who could be described as being on the periphery of the Jewish nation are increasingly “looking in” with real interest, some of them actively “moving in”. In some cases, these are people of recent Jewish descent whose grandparents converted or intermarried, in others the descent is more distant or even dubious at best. Some have no claim of descent at all but are simply drawn to Jewish religious, moral, and cultural values. Such individuals and groups already number several million around the world, and their numbers are growing.
However, we currently know very little about the background, the characteristics, and the trends to be expected from this significant development. The variety of these groups and individuals is great: descendants of the Jewish community which existed in the Chinese city of Kaifeng between about 1000-1800 who are now returning to the Jewish fold; descendants of forcibly converted Jews (called bnei anusim) who are creating new communities in Brazil, Columbia, and Mexico; young men and women from the US to Poland who are discovering that their grandparents fearing discrimination or even persecution, hid their Jewish descent from their own children; devout groups in India or Africa who have found in the Bible the principles they desire and create learning groups gradually coming close to the Jewish faith; and many, many more.
A first international conference devoted to this important development will take place, in Jerusalem (at the Miskant Shaananim conference center) on April 10, and in The Aviv (at the “ANU Museum” situated in the Tel Aviv University campus) on April 11. Titled “Distant Relatives: Looking at emerging groups and communities with affinity to the Jewish people”, the conference will address the various aspect of this riveting and complicated issue.
The conference is an initiative of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and the ANU museum of Tel Aviv, who have combined their resources to bring this important issue into the public eye. The Tel Aviv day of the conference will comprise in addition to the various sessions, also a special tour of ANU for conference participants, which will concentrate on the museum’s collections touching on the communities discussed, among those a New Photography Exhibition about the Bnei Mnashe community of northeastern India, a model of the 18th-century synagogue in Kaifeng (China), a photographic exhibition about the Bnei Anusim and so on.
As for the session, they will be devoted to several aspects of the issue: sessions on demographic studies, attempting to map the contours and numbers of this complicated issue; sessions presenting several different communities in Africa, Asia Europe, and the Americas; sessions tackling the institutional attitude of Jewish communities and organizations abroad and in Israel, as well as proposing ways in which such attitudes should change; and sessions addressing the future needs of research into these groups as well as ways to establish a dialogue with them.
The goal of the conference is to present the issue and its ramifications to the public, as well as to set the agenda for future learning and engaging with the emerging communities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Haivry is the Vice President of the Herzl Institute and chaired a public committee commissioned by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs with looking into the emergence of communities with affinity to the Jewish people and Israel.