March 15, 2007
Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"I'm not Orthodox, Conservative or Reform," Schorr said. "I'm Jewish."
Schorr paused, obviously moved: "I can't tell you how wonderful it is for me to be here, to celebrate Shabbat here. This group has welcomed me into their lives, and I feel that I've been adopted by them, that I have a new family now, a new set of children and grandchildren."
Schorr fought back tears and several people touched him warmly.
After everyone had spoken, all 35 of us put our arms around each other and sang "Hineh Ma Tov Uma Na'im." How good and pleasant it is to dwell with kinsmen in harmony.
In a room brimming with conversation and laughter, with toddlers running between legs and babies being passed from one set of arms to another, Schorr pondered why Judaism, Christianity and Islam all came out of the desert.
"The desert is a place of vistas that appear seamless and infinite," he said. "No beginning and no end. That's why it has given rise to thoughts of oneness: of a single, holy, omnipotent spirit."
On Saturday morning at the Medrano house, it was a quieter gathering, about a dozen people, including several who had not been there the night before.
After the service, Mehlman asked if there were questions. Several wanted to know about the brit milah (circumcision ceremony). A month earlier, a Spanish-speaking Reform rabbi, Jacques Cukierkorn -- whose congregation is in Kansas -- had been in Mexicali and had told this group that as far as he's concerned, the brit milah is not a requirement for conversion.
Mehlman -- perhaps feeling that this was a touchy subject for a group embarking on what will be a long process -- opted for an amusing story.
"On Argentine TV," he said, "there used to be a comedy show called, 'Don Jacobo,' about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires. Well, Jacobo's daughter is engaged to a man who isn't Jewish and isn't circumcised.
And every week, there's a running gag. Whenever Don Jacobo gets together with his future son-in-law, he always winks and asks him, 'Come on, are you sure you don't want to make that ... small sacrifice?'"
The Mexicali group laughed.
At the same time, Mehlman was careful not to mislead or misinform.
"Look," he said, "maybe there's been some confusion about this in the past, and it's true that some Reform rabbis have said that the brit milah is optional. But nowadays, at least where I live, all groups agree that conversion for men should involve ... that small sacrifice. However, now is not the time to deal with this issue. We can talk about it in the future."
Mario Espinoza asked about what happens at the beit din (rabbinical court).
"Both men and women go before a group of three rabbis. One of them is your sponsoring rabbi," Mehlman said. "You answer some questions about Judaism, but it doesn't take place until you're ready. It's a friendly situation, you'll see. They'll behave reasonably and with heart."
Espinoza wondered about the mikvah.
"Yes, men and women both go through the ritual bath," Mehlman said. "You go in and out of the water quickly, three times, then say the Shema. It's a meaningful step."
Espinoza said it was his understanding that conversions done by Conservative or Reform rabbis were not accepted in Israel. Mehlman explained that this had changed. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that if someone has gone through any kind of Jewish conversion anywhere in the world, that person can enter Israel as a Jew.
"There are some issues, like marriage, still controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, but I don't want to get into bureaucratic controversies now," he said.
They talked about taking a trip to Israel as a group. Mehlman proposed the fall of 2008 and said he would go with them and make it a Jewish pilgrimage, a spiritual quest in the Holy Land. A couple of the younger people also mentioned aliyah. Since these people live a pleasant life, it was clear that for them, aliyah would not be undertaken as an escape from economic or political oppression -- as has happened with others who have immigrated to Israel -- but rather as a positive return to their heritage, taken away generations ago.
Espinoza again signaled that there was another issue on his mind.
Every time he spoke, he prefaced what he had to say with a polite apology: "I mean no disrespect ..." or "Pardon me for asking ...," followed by yet another question.
"Pardon the question," Espinoza said, "but if someone were to be converted in Mexico, would he be accepted as a Jew in the U.S.?"
"Of course," Mehlman said. "Certainly."
From Espinoza's questions -- and the apologies that prefaced them -- it was clear that he felt intimidated, frustrated, even slightly angry, about a conversion process that seemed like an obstacle course or the initiation rites of an exclusive fraternity.
But there was something else. Clearly, some in this group were concerned about what would happen after conversion. Even if they satisfied all these seemingly rigorous demands, would they then be recognized as Jews by other Jews? Most of all, would they be accepted as Jews by other Mexican Jews?
The short answer is: not likely.
The group that has coalesced around the Medrano home is not the only one like it in Mexico. Far from it. The Web site of Beth Hatefutsoth, the Israel Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, lists a number of communities of "native Mexican Jews" -- located in various parts of Mexico -- who trace their origins to anousim.