VERACRUZ, Mexico, April 4 (JTA) — It’s a warm, humid afternoon in this Gulf of Mexico port town, and the local Jewish community has gathered to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Federico Hernando Cohen.
With 200 of his friends and family members watching, the young man fidgets and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand during the religious service. Along with everyone in the banquet hall, he shuts his eyes to concentrate while reciting the Shema. After eating, the group moves to the dance floor, with four men grabbing Cohen and pushing him onto a chair. They hoist the chair into the air and dance with it, as the guests cheer and clap.
For a few moments, no one worries about the future of the Veracruz Jewish community.
Most of the 30 Jewish families in Veracruz believe they are descendants of the Jews of Spain who were forced to profess Catholicism during the Inquisition. But these converted Jews are not counted in the official tally of 40,000 Jews kept by the Central Jewish Committee of Mexico. And the community’s future is uncertain. They have no synagogue, and recently were forced to vacate the latest in a string of buildings they have rented.
More importantly, they have lost the only rabbi most of them have ever known. Rabbi Samuel Lerer of San Antonio, who converted most of these people during the three decades he worked as a rabbi in Mexico City, died Feb. 5.
“It’s like we have to start over,” says Ari Herrera, a member of the Veracruz Jewish congregation, which is named in Lerer’s honor. “For us, he was a light in the darkness.”
Herrera, 37, like many Jews in Veracruz, was born to a family whose traditions were outside the norm for Veracruz Catholics. Families like his regularly lit candles on Friday evenings. They avoided pork. Some had photos of grandparents getting married in a church under a chupah. More than 20 years ago, these families gathered with others in Veracruz who shared their traditions and determined that these customs were not Catholic at all: They were Jewish.
“Our family had tried several different churches, and we never felt like we identified with any of them,” Herrera says. “Finding Judaism has been a beautiful thing.”
Some members of the group went to Mexico City to meet with Lerer, then the rabbi at the Conservative Beth Israel Community Center. Lerer began traveling regularly to Veracruz to conduct Jewish education workshops, and, eventually, began converting people there and in other towns. After retiring in San Antonio, he continued to travel to Mexico for special occasions.
Lerer died in Mexico City just days after performing Cohen’s Bar Mitzvah in Veracruz.
Lerer claimed to have converted some 3,000 people, although some say that number is exaggerated. Hundreds of Lerer’s Mexican converts have since moved to Israel.
Jehú Calderon, the president of the congregation in Veracruz, says his community does the best it can to follow Jewish traditions such as observing the Sabbath, but that it is sometimes difficult. “We’re poor people — the majority of us are employees, not professionals,” says Calderon, a former soft-drink maker who now works for a clothing manufacturer. “We’re dependent on the schedules of our employers. If we leave work on Saturdays, we’d get cut from our jobs.”
Because they cannot afford a synagogue, the Jews of Veracruz until last month held services in an elementary school classroom. But since vacating that building in late February when the owner decided to sell it, they have been holding services in different members’ homes.
Calderon acknowledges the need for a building, but says that even more important is a rabbi. He and other members take turns conducting services, using a video Lerer made to guide them.
“For me, the most urgent thing is that we need spiritual help,” says Calderon, who drives 90 miles each week from his town of Catemaco for services. “We don’t have anyone to teach us Torah, to teach us Hebrew, to remind us of our customs.”
Some historians believe that Latin America and the American Southwest could be filled with millions of “lost” Jews — descendants of the Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition that began in 1492 in Spain. Mexico’s first Jews are thought to have arrived in 1519 with the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes. Many Jews immigrated to Mexico to escape the Spanish Inquisition, but when the Inquisition followed them there, they too were forced to conceal their Judaism. In several places around Mexico, including Veracruz, Venta Prieta and Mexico City, people who claim to be descendants of these conversos have returned to what they believe is the faith of their ancestors.
But according to Mauricio Lulka, executive director of the Central Jewish Committee of Mexico, “From a historical perspective, there is not a relation between these people and the Jews who came to Mexico with Cortes.”
Isaac Aspani, immediate past president of the Sephardi Federation of Latin America, offered a theory on the origin of the Mexicans who claim Jewish roots. “The truth could be that these people are descended from the servants of the Jews who came with Cortes — that they picked up their traditions and started to live like Jews,” he tells JTA.
The Central Jewish Committee leaves it to member congregations to decide whether groups of converted Jews can become part of the official Mexican Jewish community, Lulka says. “We don’t enter into religious questions,” Lulka says, explaining that his organization is a political one. He added that Orthodox Jews do not recognize non-Orthodox conversion processes. All but two of Mexico’s official Jewish congregations are Orthodox.
Several members of Veracruz’s Jewish congregation said they feel that Mexico City Jews look down on them because of their conversion status, darker skin and relative poverty. “It’s difficult,” Herrera says. “You’re Jewish, and you feel Jewish. But a lot of people don’t accept you.”
Calderon, the congregation president, tells a story of going to a bookstore in Mexico City to purchase religious books. The shopkeeper refused to sell him the books, he said.
Mexico City filmmaker Sandro Halphen, who is Jewish, spent four months interviewing members of the Veracruz Jewish community for his 2002 documentary “Eight Candles,” which tells the story of Mexico’s disputed Jews. Halphen says the purpose of his documentary is to show Mexico City Jews that the community in Veracruz “is normal, that they are not awful monsters with hidden agendas, that they are not a hazard to the mainstream Jewish community.”
Max Amichai Heppner is the Mexico coordinator for Kulanu, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding and assisting “lost” Jewish communities around the world. Heppner has an idea to link congregations in the United States with isolated Jewish communities in Mexico. The American congregations could fund an occasional trip by their rabbi — or a retired rabbi — to Mexico to perform services and life cycle events.
“They need a substitute for Lerer, who was their only link to mainstream Judaism,” Heppner says. And Heppner says he thinks the Jewish world can learn a lesson from the Jews of Veracruz. “There’s something spiritual in Judaism that the rest of us may have lost,” he says. “These people can bring it back to us.”
For information on the documentary “Eight Candles” or to schedule a screening, visit www.ochocandelas.com. To help the Jewish community in Veracruz, contact Kulanu’s Max Amichai Heppner at email@example.com. Learn about Kulanu at www.kulanu.org.