March 15, 2007
Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border
(Page 3 - Previous Page)How many descendants of anousim are there?
"It's hard to figure out exactly," said Rabbi Stephen Leon of Congregation B'nai Zion in El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. "I'd only be guessing, but I'd say the number is very large. I have personally ministered to 40 such families. In the 20 years I've been here, not a week goes by that I don't meet someone who tells me about childhood memories of crypto-Jewish practices."
The Diaspora Museum Web site points out that even after converting to Judaism, "native Mexican Jews" have not been accepted by "traditional Mexican Jews," nearly all of whom are Orthodox and descended from those who immigrated to Mexico from Europe and the Middle East in the early 1900s.
Mehlman tried to put that rejection into perspective.
"That's the way it is," he said. "Jews from Germany reject those from Russia. Jews from Syria reject those from Turkey. Those from Aleppo reject those from Damascus. And those from one part of Aleppo reject those from another part of Aleppo. But you can't let that discourage you."
Espinoza, though, could not quite let go of his concerns.
"I've studied Hebrew and I've immersed myself in Judaism," Espinoza said. "I have books, and I've read them over and over ... but I feel that I haven't gotten very far in my knowledge."
Mehlman nodded, smiled ruefully -- a Jewish gesture, as if carrying the weight of history.
"None of us have gotten very far," he said. "None of us. Halacha is a process, a road. True, conversion isn't that simple. But maybe when it's over, one appreciates it more. And it will happen. In the end, those of you who want to be Jews will become Jews. Like Herzl said, 'If you wish it, it will not be a legend.'"
Mehlman told the group that in the last few years he's been the sponsoring rabbi in nearly 60 conversions.
"And all of those people," he said, "all of them, when the final step came, they all cried. For me, conversion is the essence of my connection to Judaism. Being in contact with those going through conversion, seeing their growing attachment to Judaism, makes me feel and understand all over again why I became a rabbi."
"This weekend together is our first step: getting to know each other," he said. "We don't have an exact roadmap for the future, but we know where we'll get to, eventually."
"When I came here, I didn't know what to expect," he continued. "But what did I find? A group of wonderful, warm human beings, several generations, all wanting to practice Judaism. I can't tell you how moving it's been for me to be here. To be received so warmly, with so much love."
There was a deep silence for a few seconds, then Espinoza said that he didn't mean to be disrespectful, but he had one more question.
"Just one more," he said.
"I certainly hope not," Mehlman said.
Everyone laughed. "What I mean is, don't ever stop asking questions.
More and more questions. That's the nature of being Jewish.
So had I seen Judaism through the eyes of the Mexicali group?
What struck me is how different Friday night was from Saturday. On Saturday, there was a smaller, more serious group, and they expressed their concerns, as well as their hopes for the future.
On Friday night, however, nearly all of them were there. When they lit candles and welcomed Shabbat, it was a celebration of the present: a group of people bonded together and to their faith.
I envied what they have; not what they aspire to, but what they have now.
I thought of what Michael Schorr had said about Middle Eastern deserts: how their seamless vistas, no beginning and no end, gave rise to thoughts of oneness.
That may be, but Mexicali too is at the edge of a desert.
And where is the Holy Spirit, the sense of oneness, if not at a gathering of friends and relatives singing and praying and celebrating together?
The Mexicali community's Web site is http://groups.msn.com/CentroCulturalHebreodeMexicali; they can also be contacted at email@example.com, which stands for Jewish Cultural Center of Mexicali
2006-09-22 -- A congregation grows in Whittier -- Hispanic outreach blooms -- by Roberto Loiederman, Contributing Writer
2006-10-20 -- Grupo Hispano celebrates a buen 5767 -- By Roberto Loiederman, Contributing Writer