Recently, Temple Ner Tamid in Downey hosted Juan Mejia, a rabbi who has been profiled in the New York Daily News and Israel’s Haaretz; the Jewish Daily Forward called him one of “America’s most inspirational rabbis.”
At 36, Mejia comes across a bit like a young Jewish Santa Claus, with his jolly laugh, ample girth, scraggly beard, dancing eyes … and a kippah. He speaks and thinks quickly, moving between English and Spanish with no effort or accent, peppering his comments with Hebrew and Yiddish. His animated gestures — ardent nods, arms waving, hands clasped — are typically Jewish.
But this notable rabbi has an unusual personal narrative: Mejia is a convert who became an observant Jew and ordained rabbi.
At an informal patio gathering, Temple Ner Tamid’s rabbi, Argentine-born Daniel Mehlman, introduced Mejia (Meh-HEE-ah) to a group that, like Mejia, straddles two worlds, including both an aging congregation of Jews and local Latinos who have converted to Judaism or are in the process of doing so.
Mejia told his story of growing up in a middle-class Catholic home in Bogota, Colombia — his father a physician, his mother an artist — and of his education at a school run by Benedictine monks.
At a Christmas family gathering when Mejia was 15, his tipsy uncle told jokes about racial and ethnic stereotypes. It was all fun and games … until the uncle mocked Jews. That’s when Mejia’s grandfather became very upset.
Mejia didn’t understand the reaction; he pressed his grandfather, who finally admitted: “My grandfather was Jewish.” The old man recalled how, when he was a child, he saw his grandfather and other family members put “towels” over their heads and pray.
“No one had ever told me we had Jewish roots,” Mejia said. “That discovery — coupled with the fact that I really didn’t believe in most of the things I was supposed to believe in — made me realize I wasn’t really Catholic.”
After Mejia graduated from the Benedictine school, his mother passed away. “That sent me into a religious and emotional crisis,” he said.
Mejia postponed college for a year, grabbed a backpack and set out to see the world. Call it fate or premonition, the first place he stayed for any length of time — three months — was Israel.
“In Colombia, I never had Jewish friends,” Mejia said, “so being in Israel, being among Jews for the first time, made a deep impact. I fell in love with the country — the food, the landscape, the language; did I mention the food?” He laughed, patting his stomach. “I used to be thin … then I became Jewish.”
But when Mejia visited the kotel — the Western Wall — instead of having a life-changing mystical experience, he had “a mystical hangover.”
“For 300 years, my family had kept up Jewish traditions,” Mejia said, “but in the last few generations, they’d dropped the ball. I felt there was a big hole in my soul because I should have been Jewish but wasn’t. It was very upsetting.”
From Israel, Mejia traveled to Europe, and, “It was Jews, everywhere Jews.” In Spain, he happened upon places where synagogues had been. He got on the wrong train in Munich and ended up in the town of Dachau. In Antwerp, Belgium, he took shelter from the rain, and a Chasid opened a door and said, “Are you Jewish? You look Jewish, and we need a 10th man for Mincha.”
“All these things started to pile up,” Mejia said, “so I made a promise to myself: I’m going to investigate this Jewish thing, and if I still feel this hole inside me, I’m going to convert.” Then, he added, “Now, listen: Never, ever make a bet with God! She has a strange sense of humor.”
Mejia returned to Bogota and went to college, majoring in philosophy. He hunted down everything available about Judaism and “devoured” it. He tried to go to shul but learned that many Latin American synagogues, partly for security reasons, don’t welcome non-Jews, so he studied Judaism on his own. Determined to continue his Jewish studies, he applied for, and received, a scholarship to do graduate work at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
There, Mejia felt surrounded by a “smorgasbord” of Judaism. “Every kind of yeshiva, classes about everything — kabbalah, history, Talmud,” Mejia said. “The more I learned, the more it confirmed my desire to learn more.”
Mejia finished his conversion and enrolled in a yeshiva, where he met “another nerd, a beautiful girl from Florida.” Eight months later, Mejia and Abby Jacobson married and moved into a small Jerusalem apartment.
Mejia’s landlady, an American, became interested in his unusual story and interviewed him for a Jewish Agency publication. The article appeared online in several languages, including Spanish.
As a result, Mejia received pleas from Latin Americans who, like him, had grown up Catholic and wanted to be Jewish. Mejia wrote them that he was “simply a yeshiva student” and wasn’t qualified to help them. That’s when Jacobson — whom Mejia calls “the smartest rabbi I know” — paraphrased Hillel: Where there are no teachers, you be the teacher.
Following their shared passion, Mejia and Jacobson both applied to rabbinical school. “I figured they weren’t going to take me,” Mejia said. “I’m too new at Judaism, still dripping wet from the mikveh.” But Mejia was accepted. He and Jacobson spent the next five years at the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
While studying to be a rabbi, Mejia created a Web-based Sephardic siddur, in Spanish, for beginners. “It took me three years to complete,” he said. “You can find it online at koltuvsefarad.com and it’s free. Just the basics, how to daven, how Jewish prayers work.” Since then, he’s created more texts for Spanish speakers new to Judaism, and he also teaches Mishnah and Talmud online.
After their ordination, Jacobson became a congregational rabbi at a shul in Oklahoma City, where the couple has lived for most of the last decade: Mejia said he’s the “rebbetzin” and spends some of his day taking care of the couple’s two young daughters. He’s also Southwestern coordinator for Be’Chol Lashon, a nonprofit whose mission is to increase Jewish diversity.
He and Mehlman have worked with “emergent” Jewish groups in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and other countries, in places where there’s no Jewish community, or where a nearby shul doesn’t welcome converts, he said. Mejia and Mehlman have converted hundreds and established kehillot — entire Jewish communities — and they remain cyber-connected to these kehillot, sometimes visiting them as well.
Mejia acknowledged that establishing Jewish communities is difficult work. He and Mehlman have run into barriers with both Jews and non-Jews, butting heads with rabbis at established shuls or with Catholic families who are upset when a loved one converts to Judaism.
In Mejia’s own case, he received acceptance from his own family for the choices he’s made. “When I converted, my father took it very well,” Mejia said. “He’s an old hippie: ‘Judaism, Shmudaism, we’re all children of the light.’ ”
In the evening, often late into the night, Mejia becomes, as Jacobson had once suggested to him, a teacher for those who have no teacher — via the Internet.
“You can’t ignore the Internet,” Mejia said. “It’s where millennials are living their Judaism, it’s the main force behind Judaism in Latin America. Every emergent community in Latin America started in an Internet forum. That’s what’s providing the content and the community.”
Mejia said that when he and Mehlman carry out conversions, they remain in contact afterward. “If these kehillot aren’t nurtured,” Mejia said, “there aren’t going to be any Jews there after a decade, and that would be a sad thing.”
His aim, Mejia said, is to work with people who sincerely want to be Jews and live a Jewish life, whether they have Jewish roots or not. “I don’t check anybody’s pedigree,” he said. “What I’m looking for, as a rabbi, is for these communities to look forward, to look to the future.
“I don’t care who your grandparents were,” Mejia said, summing up his attitude and his mission. “I care what your grandkids are going to be.”