Obituary: Samuel Lerer, an American Rabbi who Converted Mexicans, Dies at 89
Rabbi Samuel Lerer, who some say converted more people to Judaism than anyone in the past two centuries, has died at age 89. Lerer, who had retired to San Antonio, Texas, lived in Mexico City from 1968 to 1999 while leading English-language Beth Israel Community Center in the capital. He died peacefully on Feb. 5. During that time, the Conservative rabbi reached out to Mexicans who believed they were descended from Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition. By his own count, Lerer converted about 3,000 people, mostly in the Mexican cities of Veracruz, Venta Prieta and Puebla. More than 500 of those people since have moved to Israel.
Lerer’s liberal views on conversion sometimes drew criticism from the Mexican Jewish establishment. “There are rabbis who think differently and there are rabbis who think like me,” Lerer told JTA four days before his death during an interview in Veracruz, where he had traveled to perform a Bar Mitzvah. “This has been my purpose in life. I have a limited life but whatever I could, I did.” Beth Israel’s rabbi and congregants remembered Lerer as an intelligent scholar with a loving heart, an engaging sense of humor and a bright smile.
“All I can say is, ‘What a man,’ ” Rabbi Palti Somerstein, who succeeded Lerer at Beth Israel, told the congregation during services last Friday night. “He gave his love. He gave his life. He molded so many souls, and now those souls are crying for him.” The mood was funereal as congregants read from a prayer book Lerer had written in a mixture of English, Spanish and Hebrew. But when Lerer’s widow, Marguerite, spoke to the congregation with strength and passion — and without a tear — the mood softened. “There is a book that says ‘You Can’t Go Home Again,’ ” the Alabama native told the congregation, referring to the Thomas Wolfe novel. “But you can go home again. His heart was here in Mexico.”
Marguerite Lerer said that she and her husband of 58 years had purchased burial plots in a San Antonio cemetery, but after his death she realized her husband should be buried in Mexico City. Lerer was to be buried Sunday. He had been ill for the past few years, his widow said. In addition to his wife, Lerer is survived by his daughter Adina Karp of Long Island, N.Y.; his son Jeffrey Warren Lerer of Manhattan; granddaughters Debra Brender and Karen Karp; and two great-grandsons. Lerer’s son Rabbi Nathan Aaron Lerer died two years ago. Samuel Lerer was born in Palestine and was ordained as a rabbi in 1938 by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in Palestine. Lerer served congregations in Montgomery, Ala., Hollywood, Fla. and Akron, Ohio.
He was a professor for four years at the University of Iowa before moving to Mexico to lead Beth Israel, which was founded by Jews from the United States. The Sunday before the rabbi’s death was a warm, sticky day in the coastal city of Veracruz. Lerer and his wife celebrated the previous dayls Bar Mitzvah with members of the 30-family congregation Beth Shmuel Simja Lerer, which is named in the rabbi’s honor. Lerer led a religious service and then spent some time on the dance floor, where the teenagers and their entire families moved to a mix ofJewish and Latin beats. Later, in the lobby of his hotel, Lerer talked with JTA about his worries for the future of the Veracruz community, which has no synagogue and no rabbi. His story began with his arrival in Mexico, when he heard about a group of Mexicans who claimed Jewish roots.
Historians believe the first Jews came to Mexico in 1519 with the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes. They were conversos, or Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism after the start of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The Inquisition followed the conversos to the New World, and they were forced to conceal their Jewish identities. Centuries later, people in Mexico and the American Southwest have been seeking out rabbis, telling them that they suspect they have converso roots. In Mexico, Lerer met Catholics who had family traditions they couldn’t explain. About 20 years ago, a group of these people invited Lerer to Veracruz to give a workshop on Judaism. The workshop led to weekly classes, for which Lerer would drive four hours from Mexico City.
Two years later, Lerer converted the first group of people from Veracruz. For two decades after that, he returned regularly to Veracruz to teach and perform conversions, weddings and other services. For Ari Herrera, 37, of Veracruz, his family’s conversion to Judaism “was like finding something we were missing.” The Central Jewish Committee of Mexico, the organization that represents Mexican Jews, does not include convert communities in its official count of 40,000 Mexican Jews.
“From a historical perspective, there is not a relation between these people and the Jews who came to Mexico with Cortes,” Mauricio Lulka, executive director of the committee, told JTA. But Lerer said he believed that people who are born Jewish can learn from converted Jews. “I envy those who enter Judaism by choice,” Lerer told JTA. “The spirit of their worship is unbelievable. The way they pray is with every ounce of their body.”