Rabbi helps Hispanics connect with secret Jewish roots

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ELPASO – Two days after Rabbi Stephen Leon moved to El Paso from New Jersey in 1986, he received an urgent phone call from a Roman Catholic man wanting to speak with him about a family mystery.

“He told me that his entire family were religious Catholics living in Juarez, but he remembers ever since he was a little boy, 3 or 4 years old, his grandmother would take him into a room on Friday night, light two candles, and say a prayer in a language he didn’t understand.”

Years after his grandmother died, the man asked a priest what the tradition actually meant. The priest suggested he contact a rabbi. The man told Rabbi Leon about his grandmother’s ritual and was surprised when Leon told him the tradition was of Hebrew origin.

Rabbi Leon asked him if he ever traced his ancestry, to which the man responded that his grandmother’s family was originally from Spain.

Leon was familiar with Spain’s history of persecuting Jews during the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1492, the Jewish population of Spain was ordered by King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Isabella to convert to Catholicism or leave .

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Rabbi Stephen Leon (courtesy of Congregation B’nai Zion)

“During the Spanish Inquisition, there were many Jews that were forced to convert, and some of them converted openly but they kept their Judaism secretly and continued doing certain practices,” Leon said.

The expulsion came as a result of growing fear that the remaining Jews that had not converted would influence those that had, to continue practicing Judaism.

Rabbi Leon said he was approached two more times by people with similar stories concerning their ancestry in Judaism.

Curious about the number of Hispanics with Jewish ancestors in the Southwest, Leon attempted to find other rabbis who to see if they had experienced similar situations.

“I called all of the people that I knew, and they got me in touch with one Rabbi, a Reform Rabbi in Phoenix, and I spoke to him and he told me that there were a few people in his congregation that had these roots as well, and that they had come back to Judaism. And so that was where it all started” Rabbi Leon said.

Since coming to El Paso, Leon has continued to meet people in the community with similar stories, like Louie Saenz, news director for KTEP radio

Saenz said he found out about his own Jewish heritage by accident.

“We were in San Antonio, at the San Antonio zoo, and we saw a rabbi there. Apparently he recognized me from television or being on the radio and he asked me if I knew that I might be Jewish,” Saenz said.

“He told me about a website that had a list of Hispanic names, and if your name was on that list, then you had Jewish roots that you could track, and sure enough, I was there.”

Saenz explained that his ancestors had come from Spain and had been through France, Cuba and Mexico before settling in the U.S. But, there weren’t any family traditions he could think of that would have been a clue to their Jewish past.

“As far as Jewish customs, rituals, anything we’ve done in the past, I’m not aware of anything that my grandparents used to do.”

What began as a series of coincidences became much more as Rabbi Leon began to do outreach to anyone wanting to know more about Jewish customs. For 11 years he has also hosted annual conferences for the Anusim.

“Anusim is the Hebrew word for Crypto-Jew. Anusim in Hebrew means people that were raped or forced to do something against their will, and it is the belief that the Hebrews during the Spanish Inquisition were forced to give up their Judaism.”

On August 10, 2014, Leon realized his dream of opening an Anusim Center in El Paso. It is at 401 Wallenberg, at the site of what used to be the El Paso Holocaust Museum before it was relocated downtown.

“It will be a place for people to learn about this phenomenon, a museum, a place for people to trace their DNA, a place for programming on this subject, and it will be something that I think will, in this area between Juarez, El Paso, and New Mexico, probably bring about a new sparked interest in this subject called Crypto-Judaism.”

In June 2014, the Spanish government announced a bill that will give full citizenship to Hispanic people with Sephardic Jewish ancestry provided that their last name coincides with an official list of names. Leon thinks that this is an important step and that it’s also time that the Catholic church make some kind of recognition toward the atrocities inflicted on Jews during the Inquisition.

Leon estimates that he has spoken with at least 60 families so far that have come back to Judaism and that the number continues to grow. He continues to offer services and information to those wishing to find out more about their Jewish ancestry, and even teaches a class on Judaism and the Holocaust at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“If there’s such a thing as a call by God, then to some extent, I feel this is my calling. Its become a very important part of my life,” Leon said.

Rabbi Leon can be contacted through his congregation’s website, congregationbnaizion.org. For more information on the Anusim Center you can visit anusimcenterrep.org or the Anusim Center facebook page, and cryptojews.com, for more general information from the Society of Crypto-Judaic Studies.

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