At the tender age of seventeen Yosef’s brothers sold him into slavery. He changed hands several times and eventually ended up as a house slave in Egypt. Yosef’s depravation, however, did not end there. He was then falsely accused of rape and sentenced to jail, presumably to rot away. After such an ordeal it should not shock us that even upon his release and his ascension to Pharaoh’s royal court, that he did not reach out to his family.
In many ways Yosef was a tinok shenishbah. That is the rabbinic term for a Jewish person who was taken captive as a child and who is therefore not liable for their unwittingly committed Torah transgressions. Indeed, the Torah specifically calls Yosef a na’ar, a lad. There have been many cases of literal tinok shenishbah. Following the Spanish Expulsion the Portuguese king sent several hundred Jewish children to the island colony of Sao Tome. Famously, in 1858, the Italian Jewish child Edgardo Mortara was forcibly baptized by a servant and then abducted by the Papacy. And during the Holocaust many Jewish children were saved by local churches, though afterwards their identity was intentionally hidden from them.
The Sages also used the term tinok shenishbah in a non literal sense to refer to Jewish children not raised in accordance with Jewish tradition, whether by unobservant Jewish parents, or even by the descendants of Jewish apostates. While an intentional sinner might be shunned by the Jewish community, the unintentional ‘sinner’ is warmly pulled closer. This is the attitude behind many current-day outreach efforts.
Of course, the first major outreach movement was directed toward the descendants of Portuguese Jewry, the famed Conversos or Marranos. While rabbinic responsa from the years following the mass conversions of 1391 indicate a growing hostility toward these individuals, already by the years before the 1492 expulsion of the remaining Spanish Jewish community, a change in attitude had set in. That new perspective would guide efforts in the following centuries as many Portuguese Conversos made their way out of the Iberian Peninsula.
Much like the Biblical Yosef, many Portuguese Conversos ultimately reunited with their Jewish brethren. They were taught how to live a Jewish life and built thriving Jewish communities. This of course included our very own congregation, aptly named Shearith Israel, Remnant of Israel. In the spirit of our founders, let us always warmly welcome those that come to our community wishing to better understand and embrace our holy tradition.