Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas
Rabbi Stephen Leon leads Congregation B’nai Zion.
June 25, 2009
EL PASO — Three strange things happened to Rabbi Stephen Leon the first week he moved here in 1986 to lead Congregation B’nai Zion, the Conservative synagogue in this Texas border city.
“Rabino,” said a Catholic man calling from Jaurez, Mexico. “I need to talk to you.”
Every Friday night from the time he was little, the man’s grandmother took him into a room, lit candles, and said some prayers in a language he didn’t understand. She had just died, and he asked his mother if she would continue the tradition. She told him to go find a rabbi.
Three days later, a Catholic woman from El Paso came to the rabbi after visiting a relative in mourning, where she noticed that all the mirrors were covered.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked her relatives. They said it was a Jewish custom.
Then the cable guy came, and the rabbi told him, “Shalom, y’all.” The man had just found out about his Jewish roots.
“Three incidents in a week and a half?” Leon recalled. “There has to be something going on.”
Twenty-two years later that something is still going on: A steady trickle of Hispanics in the Southwest, from Juarez to Texas to New Mexico, are discovering their Jewish roots.
Some are set on their search because of a mysterious tradition practiced by an older relative, such as not eating pork. But for the majority, it’s something more tenuous: a Yiddish word here, a Jewish name there. Very often it’s just a feeling about what they say is their soul that leads people to wonder if their family was once Jewish.
Crypto-Jews. Anusim. Judios. Conversos. They are all terms with different nuances referring to Jews and/or their descendants who were forced to convert after Spain and Portugal expelled all non-Catholics, but continued to practice Judaism or maintained some Jewish customs even as they and their children migrated to Latin America, Europe, and finally the United States.
Some are interested in the genealogical knowledge but are not planning on leaving Catholicism; others practice a dual Messianic faith with both Judaism and Jesus. A very few give up their Catholic faith and convert — they prefer the word “return” — to Judaism.
Some of these Crypto-Jewish returnees recently celebrated their b’nei mitzva at B’nai Zion, a synagogue with 400 families. Ten percent of the members are Crypto-Jews, yet “without my anusim I might not have a minyan,” Leon said.
“God said to me, ‘I cannot bring back the six million who were killed in the Holocaust, but there was another group before who are alive in much larger numbers than Holocaust survivors because it’s been 500 years, generation after generation of generation,” he said. “Their souls are still alive. … You have to do something about it.’”
Leon has big plans. In addition to welcoming Crypto-Jews, he helped start an anusim/Sephardic learning center and yeshiva in El Paso. The goal would be to bring awareness to the Jewish and general public about the Inquisition and Crypto-Jews on par with Holocaust remembrance.
“The anusim will come back eventually; there is a yearning. There is a divine plan out there,” Leon said.
With Hispanics being the fastest-growing population and the Jews constantly concerned about their diminishing population, Leon says the Jewish community should welcome those Hispanics who want to explore their Jewish ancestry.
“I think the anusim are the only answer,” he said. “They are returning one way or another.”
For more information, visit congregationbnaizion.org.