From Altar Boy to Rabbi

A CryptoJew’s Story

Having spent my early years in Panama my family and I belonged to the Catholic Church and I had no idea that we were Jews As a youth I was even an altar boy and helped in the preparation of the wine for the priest Back in the 1950s and 1960s virtually everyone was a Catholic The local church was the center of every community and if you were not “in good standing” with the Church you were a social outcast

The Catholic Church emphasizes reading and studying the book of the catechism because the Bible was written in Latin so that only the priest could read it The priest told you what to think and how to live and if you questioned him you were thought to be crazy or ignorant or a troublemaker When I was 13 my parents had an international traveler as a houseguest and he left his English Bible behind Since I could read both English and Spanish I read it from cover to cover and found serious discrepancies between the Catholic teachings and the Bible As a result I rejected the Catholic Church completely and quit attending services

My parents were horrified! There was scandal and our family was excluded from everything It was a really big deal Finally my mother took me to a psychiatrist and reluctantly I agreed to sit in the back of the church but I refused to listen or to participate Everything seemed to go back to normal except for the way I felt inside I was filled with resentment rejection confusion anger and so many questions a sense of incompleteness of desperate need but for what? As I think on it now my rejection of Catholicism coincided with the time in which I should have had my Bar Mitzvah

My maternal grandmother lived in a little house behind ours and I was the “apple of her eye” reminding her of my deceased grandfather Grandma was always trying to feed me extra foods because I was a skinny kid While at her house I noticed that she did things that my friends’ families didn’t do She lit two candles every Friday night and moved her hands around in a circle and said words I could not understand She swept the floors toward the center of the rooms and she covered the mirrors with black cloth when someone died When I asked her why she did these things she said they were very old family traditions taught to her by her grandmother

Between thirteen and twenty five I drifted in a spiritual holding pattern not knowing what to do where to go or whom to ask so I kept it all inside I graduated from high school worked as a commercial fisherman emigrated to the United States then joined the Air Force where I became a telecommunications specialist

My father is of Spanish descent via Mexico born in Texas raised in St Paul Minnesota My mother is of Spanish descent hundreds of years in Panama When I lived in Panama I was taller and lighter skinned than the native Panamanians of Indian descent They used to taunt me calling me “Gringo” When I came to the States I thought “Now I’m home; I’m an American!” But when I got here white Americans called me a “Spic” I thought to myself “Who am I really? I still don’t know!”

In 1982 when I was 25 I met my wife She was just out of college and I was just out of the Air Force and we both worked at the same place After 5 years of friendship we married Raised a Protestant my wife insisted we attend some sort of church I had given up on the Catholic Church but not on God so we searched for a mutually acceptable congregation We explored several Protestant denominations and Messianic Christian “synagogues” but none of them felt right to me

During our search I began reading the Bible My wife was very focused on the first five books stating that they were the only written words given directly from God to man and therefore the most authoritative So I began to really study these five books and I found much truth and inner peace I was fascinated with the ancient texts and began college classes in biblical Hebrew and hermeneutics (biblical interpretation)

At this time I spoke with an elderly greatuncle who seemed to understand me He said that the reason that I felt uncomfortable in Christianity was because we’re Jews I was shocked but upon reflection my life began to make sense I chuckled to myself remembering my mother shouting about the filth and toxicity of pork “It will kill you”! And suddenly it made sense that my father had grown up in the Jewish section of St Paul and had belonged to the first allJewish Boy Scout troop and that his mother always served Manichewitz concord wine with every Friday dinner Several years ago my father was staying at my home while on vacation and when we celebrated Erev Shabbat he began to cry because it was the first time he had done so since his mother’s death some years before It was then that I realized that he had known all along but had neglected to share the information with me To this day he remains a nominal Catholic but my mother has embraced Judaism and has a mezuzah on the doorway of their house While in Panama about three years ago my mother had my wife son and I go with her to the cemetery and say Kaddish for her parents and sister who are buried there It was a moving experience for me because my grandmother had kept the faith and the traditions to the best of her ability and we had been close

Upon further analysis and fact gathering I found that all four of my grandparents were descendants of Spanish Jews who had emigrated to escape the Spanish Inquisition The persecution had followed them from Spain into Mexico and Panama where the Catholic Church continued its stranglehold on the Jews Both sides of my family had been forced into Catholicism for hundreds of years Some of them became comfortable there but most were pretty lousy Catholics with only a thin veneer of public conformity At home behind closed curtains many continued to observe some form of Kashrut and the Holy Shabbat and many traditions Some members of my family still live in terrible fear of discovery remembering that as late as 1960 a Jew was hanged in Central America for being a Jew My greatuncle who had told me about our Jewishness had extensively researched our family tree all the way back to Spain which had taken many years and a lot of expense Within a few days of his death his daughter burned the written records in an attempt to maintain her social position within an “upper class” exclusive gated community Every generation has had “rebels” like myself who were drawn to Judaism and who found the truth of their Jewishness My son’s generation is the first to have the freedom to openly embrace Judaism

In the early 1990s I met an elderly rabbi from Columbia who agreed to teach me how to live my life as a Jew and after five years of intense study I was anointed and ordained a rabbi My wife converted to Judaism we remarried with a ketuba and we are raising our son in a kosher home

Eight years ago I founded Congregation Avdey Torah Hayah in Portland OR whose mission is to help crypto Jews to reclaim their heritage I want to enable people to ask questions and to transition out of Catholicism at their own pace without fear of ridicule or criticism They need time to learn Hebrew the prayers the rituals and the significance of what Jews do and how to do it And they need a sense of community Dozens of CryptoJews come to me each year to learn about their roots but many are still so fearful that they only come to the synagogue once or twice or not at all Still others may come for months or even years then eventually return to Catholicism because of the pressure from their friends and family

About three years ago Rabbi Joshua Stampfer contacted me to inquire about our synagogue He came for a visit and seemed to be amazed at our existence He said that it is perhaps the first cryptoJewish synagogue with a cryptoJewish rabbi in the world! The newspaper The Jewish Review did a series of articles on our group immediately frightening several of our members into quitting It also seemed to stimulate controversy as to whether I am indeed a Jew whether I am actually a rabbi whether Avdey is indeed a real synagogue if there are in fact any Latin American Jews and if I have truly given up Catholicism I challenge my critics to come to my synagogue and listen to the teaching to ask questions and to go toetotoe with me on Torah! Avdey remains a small intense dynamic Torahbased group growing and shrinking through time as any congregation does Rabbi Stampfer has become my mentor friend and advisor for which I am eternally grateful

In the last few years I have begun to put together a cryptoJewish siddur It has the prayers in Hebrew English English transliteration and Spanish Eventually Portuguese will be added We say or cantor our prayers in Hebrew but I think it is imperative that adequate translations are available so that each person can truly understand the meaning of what they are saying When I consider the siddur to be a completed work it will be published and offered for sale and as gifts to other Latin American crypto Jews and congregations

Perhaps the most exciting part of being a cryptoJewish rabbi is helping others to discover their own identity It is the moment of “Ah ha!” that is truly thrilling to observe In 2003 an interesting couple who are members of SCJS came to visit Avdey The wife had converted to Judaism and wanted to visit our synagogue while on vacation in Portland Her husband was not so excited about the visit but came along anyway It turns out that he is my first cousin on my father’s side and he previously had had no idea whatsoever that he is a Jew! Our fathers’ family was quite large with thirteen children with a sizable age difference from the oldest child to the youngest and we are spread all over the Western Hemisphere such that none of my generation knows all of our first cousins Everyone in the synagogue was thrilled and excited and the visiting husband was almost overcome with the sudden news This is typical in that within the same extended family some of the members know and some do not Since then we have formed a warm family relationship

Despite the fear and lack of knowledge about their heritage increasingly more crypto Jews have begun to explore their roots in the past 20 years Their love of God overcomes their fear of being discovered or rejected They feel that here in the United States they have religious freedom The children and grandchildren of those who find the courage to accomplish the transition back into Judaism will never know our struggle or conflicts We can’t do anything about the past but we can do something in the present that will enable our children to do something in the future

YOSEF GARCIA Rabbi of Congregation Avdey Torah Hayah in Portland OR addressed SCJS’s 2003 conference on the story of his return to Judaism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *