February 8, 2012
At the end of Shabbat services last Saturday, I watched a 7-year-old boy recite the blessing over the wine, the Kiddush. His voice was pure, the Hebrew, a learned language for him, flowed fast and flawlessly from his mouth. His face shone.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the boy, because I was in Mexico and had learned that just a year ago, he wasn’t Jewish. His parents had approached the expatriate Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, and asked if they could learn about Judaism.
Yes, at a time when our community is almost 100 percent focused on the people who opt out, these people wanted in.
Last June, The Journal reported the story of six native Mexicans’ conversion to Judaism in San Miguel. When I found myself in the small, perfectly beautiful colonial town for a friend’s birthday celebration, I jumped at the opportunity to attend Shabbat services at the congregation San Miguel Shalom and see the community there for myself.
They meet for services at the Hotel Quinta Loreto, located just off the Mercado de Artesanias, a large covered market where you can buy crucifixes fashioned from polished pewter, papier-mache crèches, wood-carved Jesus figurines and terra cotta saints. A sloping driveway leads into the hotel, where a lush garden — and the jungle call of some tropical bird — reminds you you’re not exactly at Temple Beth Am.
When we entered, a middle-age man launched a big smile in our direction, indicated a woven basket of prayer shawls, and beckoned us to sit down. There were 40 people seated around tables formed into a long rectangle. The Torah ark on the east wall was made from hammered tin, decorated in a familiar local style.
Most of the congregants are Americans. The prayer leader, Dr. Daniel Lessner, retired early from his practice in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and conducts the services in English, Hebrew and Spanish. The community’s president, Carole Stone, adds her cantorial voice. For decades now, San Miguel, a town of simple but unrelenting beauty, has attracted retirees, artists and snowbirds from the United States. About 20 years ago, some of the Jewish ones formed this congregation, in what they say is the largest Jewish community in Mexico outside of Mexico City.
In the past few years, at least 16 non-Jewish native Mexicans have gravitated to the congregation. Many believe they are descendants of Jews who migrated to the Americas after being expelled from Spain 500 years ago, coerced by the Catholic Church to abandon their original faith. They are called B’nai Anusim — the Children of the Forced Ones. Others have been drawn to the Jewish faith for spiritual, social or intellectual reasons. In their experience, the more established synagogues in Mexico City do not encourage or welcome potential converts.
But Shalom San Miguel, as you should be able to deduce by now, is very welcoming. The leaders have translated the prayer books, including the High Holy Days’ siddurim, into Spanish. Lessner, who conducts a truncated Conservative-style service, lapses easily into Spanish and invites native speakers to read passages of liturgy in translation.
“Everyone should feel at home here,” longtime congregant Charles Soberman told me during Kiddush. “It’s nice to have young families.”
That is one striking difference between the converts and the congregants: The ex-pats are older, the generation of Judaism that was. The converts have kids. A mother swaddled her newborn baby in a colorful blanket throughout the service. The baby was born just after the three Spanish-speaking rabbis from Los Angeles, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas flew down at the invitation of the congregation to conduct a formal conversion ceremony. For this, the new members had spent a year studying and practicing Judaism. Lessner explained that the rabbis had invested him with the power to convert the newborn upon arrival.
San Miguel is an intensely Catholic town: “You argue with an upbringing like that; you don’t escape it,” Tony Cohan wrote in his book “On Mexico Time: A New Life in San Miguel.”
In that atmosphere, cut off from Jewish friends and family — not to mention good deli — I couldn’t imagine the kind of courage and perseverance it must have taken for the men and women who walked into Shalom San Miguel to make the choice to become Jewish.
But I did see what happens when congregations actively welcome potential converts: At one point in the service, a young man stood to thank the congregation for helping him through the untimely death of his brother. Afterward, a newlywed lawyer who had commuted two hours from Leon, Mexico, for a year for conversion lessons, invited the whole congregation to his house to celebrate his and his wife’s one-year wedding anniversary.
And I marveled. What we so often push away, these Children of the Coerced drew close: Judaism’s way of making sense of the world, of offering meaning, of asking hard questions and providing no easy answers, of emphasizing godly behavior over even belief in God. They need Judaism. And it needs them.
We Jews are just now emerging from what Rabbi Harold Kushner calls “a period of illiteracy and assimilation … a time of embarrassment at being Jewish.” That embarrassment only amplified our reluctance to seek, welcome and encourage converts — a custom brought on by anti-Semitic edicts, but completely at odds with a Judaism that for centuries sought out and venerated new Jews.
The opposite of embarrassment, the opposite of coercion, is embrace. Embracing new Jews was once the Jewish past. And my visit to San Miguel only confirmed what I’ve long believed: It is also the Jewish future.