Rabbi educates Crypto-Jews about their history

Colombian Juan Mejia, who was raised Catholic, found out he had Jewish roots when he was 15 years old.

In casual conversation, his grandfather mentioned that his grandfather was Jewish.

From that time, Mejia became interested in his family’s Jewish history and began a spiritual journey. He visited Israel when he was 20.

“After visiting Israel, all the pieces came together for me — the intellectual, the emotional and the historical,” he said. “I felt such an intense connection with Jewish people, I felt I should rejoin them.”

He eventually moved to Israel, where he earned a master’s degree in Jewish philosophy, and fell in love with and married a Jewish woman. He lived there for four years.

Most recently, Mejia finished his rabbinical studies in the United States and was ordained a rabbi.

The rabbi, who just moved with his family to Oklahoma from New York, believes his religious mission is to help other Crypto-Jews learn about their history. Mejia will be one of the featured speakers at the sixth annual Sephardic Anousim Conference from Friday through Sunday at Congregation B’Nai Zion.

The conference is sponsored by Bat-Tzion Hebrew Learning Center in conjunction with Congregation B’nai Zion and with a grant from the Jewish Federation of El Paso.

Rabbi Stephen Leon, who has been studying Crypto-Jews for about 20 years, said most people find out about Jewish ancestry when they discover that a relative’s habit is of Jewish origin.

“They’ll find that someone didn’t eat pork and are not Jewish, or that they cover the mirrors when someone dies and sit on low benches,” he said.

Leon said he has probably talked to and helped more than 100 people learn about the Jewish faith. And he believes it’s important to continue to have these conferences.

“It’s a very unique minority of people trying to find who they are and where they came from and an extremely fascinating phenom,” he said.

Mejia said he realized he could help other people after his story appeared on a Jewish Web site. He started receiving e-mails from all over the world, from people with similar backgrounds.

“They wanted to know how I had successfully integrated into Jewish life,” he said.

There is no special path, Mejia said, but he is committed to helping others interested in their own Jewish heritage, especially because there is a lack of access in Latin America.

“Not many rabbis are willing to work with people in these communities. And the Jewish community is very small with an overwhelming Catholic majority,” he said.

Most of his work is online, through his Web site: www.koltuvsefarad.com.

Both Mejia and Leon are hoping to continue to work together for the education of anousim.

“Hopefully we can establish one of several centers for the study of Judaism in the Southwest,” Mejia said.


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