Of all the rabbis ordained last week at the Jewish Theological Seminary, few have journeys to the rabbinate quite as unlikely as Juan Mejia. Raised as a Catholic in Colombia and educated at Christian schools, Mejia was on his way to becoming a monk when he discovered that his family had Jewish roots. His grandfather would recall men gathering in darkened corners to place towels on their head and pray from a strange book.
After a torturous journey, which involved his rejection by the tiny Jewish community in Bogota and several years of study in Jerusalem, Mejia converted and began training for the rabbinate.
The plight of descendants of conversos, those Jews forced to publicly recant their religion under threat of execution by the Inquisition, but who continued to practice their religion in secret, has gotten more attention in recent years. I’ve written several stories about Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Vinas, a Cuban-born rabbi who teaches classes for anusim, as forced converts are known in Hebrew. JTA has two stories out in recent days on the subject (see here and here), including one about Spanish marranos being trained as Israeli propagandists.
Mejia promises to take the type of outreach Vinas has pioneered to a new level. With many anusim shunned when they turn for help to Jewish communities in Latin America — those communities are beset by a “colonial mindset,” Mejia says, and have contempt for the claims to Jewish ancestry of the locals — Mejia hopes to reach them over the Internet. “I fight the Inquisatorial frame of mind,” he says. He already runs a Web site that offers online instruction in Jewish topics. And with his rabbinical training now complete, he hopes to relocate with his wife, also ordained last week at JTS, to the southwest, where many anusim are located.
Mejia believes that only in the United States, with its large, secure, and welcoming Jewish community, can anusim be educated and brought back to their roots. “The anusim revolution starts here,” he says.