The visitor made a most unusual request: How the Crypto Jews of El Paso Transformed My Work

I will never forget her wrinkled glistening elderly eyes It was a beautiful spring day in 2001 and my secretary informed me that there were three people who had just rushed into the Synagogue and insisted on seeing me immediately I invited the three strangers to come in and asked them to please be seated The elderly woman sat directly in front of me while the middleaged couple sat behind her The younger woman told me that she was the daughter of the older woman who was in her mideighties and that she and her husband had taken “Mom” from Los Angeles to San Antonio by car because her mother didn’t like to fly She also informed me that her mom was suffering from a terminal illness and didn’t have long to live perhaps two or three months

They had gone to San Antonio to attend the college graduation of her son On the way home to Los Angeles as they approached El Paso Mother insisted that they get off the next exit and find a synagogue and a rabbi Since all three were Catholics the daughter could not understand her mother’s urgent request Coincidentally they exited the highway at Exit 13 “Sunland Park” on Interstate 10 which is the closest exit to my synagogue The old woman smiled and looked deeply into my eyes She told me and her daughter and soninlaw for the first time the following story:

When I was a little girl in Mexico my grandfather used to bring me into a small room in our home every morning very early except on Saturday He would say some prayers in a language I did not understand and would put two objects on his body along with a shawl on his shoulders These two objects were black boxes with straps; one he put on his head and the other on his arm I was the only person in the family who saw him do this

Before my grandfather died many years ago he called me to his bedside and made me swear that I somehow would bury one of these objects with him in his coffin Although we were practicing Catholics he then revealed to me that these religious objects had belonged to his grandfather who had passed them on to his father and then to him because the family was actually of Jewish heritage tracing their ancestry to the Spanish Inquisition He told me some stories about Jewish traditions that the family practiced in secret

After convincing me to bury the object with him which I did when no one was paying attention he also urged me to promise him that I would bury the other object with me when I died so that the Jewish traditions would continue through me But now that I know I will soon die I realize that I cannot bury this Jewish holy object with me That is not right That is not what Gd would want I have never practiced Judaism; I love Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior

Last night I had a dream and I spoke to my grandfather and told him how I felt He entered my heart and told me that it was okay he would forgive me but that I had to find a rabbi and make him promise to bury this with him

As she finished her story tears welled up in her beautiful eyes as she opened her pocketbook and took out this object which is called “tefilin” in Hebrew She had been carrying this in her pocketbook for several years and it was clear by the surprised look on her daughter’s face that she was hearing this story for the first time and that she had no idea whatsoever why her mom had insisted on stopping at my synagogue The old woman gave me the tefilin box and made me swear to her that I would bury it with me so that her family heritage would live on through me I began to cry as I respectfully took the tefilin in my hand and I fulfilled her request by vowing to keep her grandfather’s wish I keep the tefilin in the front drawer of my desk and I will definitely bury it with me when I die When the old woman left for a moment to get a drink of water I asked her daughter what she thought She told me that she had had no idea whatsoever about her mother’s Jewish ancestry or the tefilin and she thanked me for comforting her mother

This experience is only one of a multitude of stories of crypto Jews who have come my way over the past two decades that I have served as Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso Texas The first part of the my rabbinate took place in Elmwood Park New Jersey where I served as spiritual leader of the Elmwood Park Jewish Center from 1971 to 1986 In those fifteen years I never met even one crypto Jew I had read about the Anousim but never had the honor to meet one But the very first week I came to El Paso TX I met three individuals who came to see me and told me how they were practicing Jewish traditions and yet were members of the Catholic Church

One man called me from Juarez Mexico the very day I began my rabbinate at my present Synagogue He called me “Rabino” and I didn’t even know what the word meant I agreed to see him the next day When he came to see me he kissed my hand and thanked me for seeing him He told me that his grandmother had just died a few weeks ago and although the family went to the church every Sunday Grandmother lit candles in a dark corner of the house every Friday night After she died he asked his mother if she was going to carry on this tradition His mother told him that she was not going to light candles because it meant nothing to her When he asked her why she wouldn’t answer After being rejected by every family member he was told to go to his priest He did so and the priest explained that he did know why his grandmother lit candles and that there were many of his parishioners who did the same every Friday night However he told this man to go see a rabbi in El Paso who would really know the answer And so that is how the man came to see me At that first week of my rabbinic responsibilities I didn’t think much of this incident I related to the man that lighting candles Friday night was a Jewish tradition which Jewish women had been performing for centuries to welcome the Sabbath into the home I suggested that his grandmother probably was carrying on this ancient tradition as her mother before her perhaps going back to the expulsion of the Jews of Spain in 1492 The man thanked me and asked if he could attend our Sabbath services Of course I invited him and up until a few years ago he used to attend our services about once every six weeks

That was literally the beginning of my awareness that the El PasoJuarez community was undoubtedly one of the places in the United States and Mexico that the descendants of the Jews from the Spanish Inquisition had ultimately found as a refuge and a new home A few days after meeting that man a woman from El Paso came to see me and asked why her family insisted on covering the mirrors after a Catholic funeral and refused to allow pork into the home Just two days later the gentleman who installed my cable television saw my “Shalom Y’all” sign and asked if I was Jewish He was wearing a magen david around his neck and told me about his Jewish heritage Over the past twenty years I have met personally between one and two hundred individuals who have revealed their Jewish ancestry to me I have interviewed two of the Israeli scholars on the Inquisition BenZion Netanyahu and Chaim Beinart I have visited the Jews of Belmonte Portugal I have taught and guided approximately fifty families who have studied with me and have returned to Judaism
When I met Sonya Loya a cryptoJew who studied and completed her return with me and who directs the Bat Tziyon Hebrew Learning Center in Ruidoso New Mexico I became involved with new friends who met with me on a monthly basis personally but our lessons of Hebrew Bible Life Cycle Jewish history Prayers Holidays and Customs and Ceremonies take place every week over the phone I have worked with anousim from Hobbs Clovis Cloudcroft Ruidoso and Roswell New Mexico as well as Lubbock Texas Many of the anousim who live in El Paso and have completed their return continue their studies by having adult Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and in addition are learning to read Torah and lead services Many of my cryptoJewish students are preparing to make aliyah to Israel Next March I plan to bring a group of crypto Jews on a tour to Israel
For the past eight years I have been a parttime faculty member of the University of Texas at El Paso where I teach Introduction to Judaism and the Holocaust and I have included in my curriculum the reality of crypto Judaism in El Paso and Juarez I have also established in my community the practice of making the holiday of Tisha B’av a day to focus on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the crypto Jews of today Every year I invite a guest speaker to speak on this subject

Among the activities and programs I am involved in regarding the crypto Jews are counseling for the anousim welcoming them to services having a monthly Shabbat service in Spanish Hebrew English and Ladino lessons in person lessons over the phone programs of awareness for the general Jewish communities having articles published in local newspapers and appearing on Israeli television Realizing that my goal is in no way to missionize or proselytize I am very careful in how I deal with the anousim In no way do I encourage those who are content with their Christian religion to leave that way of life On the other hand those who need someone to simply talk to or need encouragement a hug or a smile know that my Congregation and I are available

I have two goals regarding the anousim which I pray that I will see in my lifetime Together with Sonya Loya we hope to establish a SephardicHispanic Anousim Learning Center in El Paso an educational and pastoral center where the general community can learn about the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain It will also be a place for crypto Jews to study and ultimately to complete their return to Judaism It will also be a resource center of films and books which will also tell the personal stories of those who have returned We believe the story of the crypto Jews is the biggest secret in the international Jewish community today and once the world learns this the return of the anousim will be incredible
The second goal is their return in large numbers When Gd promised Abraham that we would be as “numerous as the sands of the sea and the stars in the sky” we understand that in reality the size of the Jewish community has never fulfilled that promise There are still fewer Jews in the world than existed before the Holocaust The solution lies in the anousim The enormous number of those with Hispanic background who have Jewish roots is apparent Imagine if a fraction of that Hispanic community the fastest growing population today began to explore its roots the result would be I believe a tremendous increase in the Jewish population Should this happen the impact on the world would be astounding One would just have to use his imagination to fathom how this would really change the world for the better The anousim I teach are so passionate about their Judaism commitment to Israel and loyalty to principles of Torah

I am very excited about the returns which I am witnessing every day I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with them teach them and learn from them They are an inspiration to me and to the entire Jewish world

STEPHEN A LEON is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso This article is adapted from his presentation at the SCJS 2006 Conference where he served as local host

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