Colombian rabbi igniting a revival

Conducting Jewish prayers requires a minyan, a group of 10. Conservative Jews allow that number to combine men and women.
Even then, at Temple Emanuel, a 66-year-old synagogue in the Bronx, Rabbi Juan Mejia has to skip sections of the service, so few are his congregates.

The synagogue, a spacious, bright room with pale yellow sectioned windows, once required additional stadium seating on its balcony on High Holidays – such as Rosh Hashanah, which this year runs tomorrow through Wednesday – to accommodate more than 700 worshipers. Today, with only 26 paid members and 60 alumni members, Temple Emanuel resembles a guttering flame about to blow out.

A chubby, outgoing 28-year-old Colombian fluent in Hebrew, English and Spanish may be the answer to their prayers. Mejia is only in his second year of rabbinical training, but so desperate is Temple Emanuel for revival, that he already leads the congregation of white-haired retirees.

Mejia’s 84-year-old ritual director, Herb Korman, joined the synagogue 45 years ago when it had 500 regular members and the surrounding neighborhood of Parkchester was thriving.

“It was heavenly living here,” recalls Joan Green, a Parkchester resident until 1970, and a synagogue member for 63 years. She attends services with her 30-year-old daughter, Jill. Green’s father, Arthur Goodman, was one of the temple’s founders.

Expanding the synagogue’s membership means actively reaching out to scattered Spanish-speaking Jews, while the synagogue’s second story bears witness to the challenge, now home to the Spanish-language Evangelical Church of Truth and Life.

“If we find enough Hispanic Jews here, we could have trilingual services, offer classes in Spanish,” he says. “Some of these families are really disconnected from their traditions. Cuban and Puerto Rican Jews not only face the barrier of language but of being disconnected from Jewish tradition.”

This young rabbi’s journey from Bogota to the Bronx has taken many years and included life on three continents. He didn’t even realize until his teens that he was descended from conversos, Jews who fled Spain’s Inquisition and who became nominal Christians. In Colombia, Jews represented perhaps 5,000 people in the overwhelmingly Catholic nation of 44 million.

“More Jews live in my New York neighborhood than in Colombia!” he jokes. He lives in seminary housing in Morningside Heights.

After studying Judaism on his own for six years in Colombia, Mejia won a full scholarship to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he met his American wife, Abby. They married eight months later. “I felt this really strong connection to Israel. The intensity surprised me,” he says. But Jewish religious authorities would not allow him to convert to Conservative Judaism there, which he did in New York.

Mejia has brought a more lively style to his services, and members now readily interrupt his sermons to ask questions or comment – “Donahue Torah” he calls it, like the interactive style of daytime TV talk shows.

Dorothy Kaufman, 87, a member since 1992, enjoys the new give-and-take informality. “Before that, it was like sitting in elementary school where you had to keep your hands folded on your desk,” she said.

She says she has no problem with so young a religious leader. “It’s as much a learning experience for us as it is for him,” she said. “He’s very patient. He answers any questions you might have. I like that.”


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