Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border

We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.

“OK,” he said, “we’re going to rendezvous with a man I’ve never met, go with him to a Mexican city I’ve never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don’t know.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said.

In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco — smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.

At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano came out, greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.

There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited. The brachot were led by Orozco and Lupe Medrano, as well as by Lupe’s daughter, Naara, and her friend, Nancy Fajardo.

During the Hamotzi, everyone either touched the braided, homemade challah or someone nearby, so that all were connected.

Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who’s Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.

Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.

When Mehlman told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.

I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?

This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

I’d seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it’s not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society. Why?

This question was on my mind as I watched the three women — one middle-aged, two in their 20s — cover their heads, close their eyes, wave their hands and say the brachot.

Afterward, Mehlman led the kabbalat Shabbat service. Some could read Hebrew, others knew the prayers by heart. All sang niggunim.

The feeling was warm and affable, even joyous — a large extended family welcoming Shabbat. When the service was over, Mehlman asked that each person say a few words about the path that led him or her to Judaism and to this home.

Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forcibly converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.

Orozco said he grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends.

He said he’s been drawn to Judaism since childhood.

“When I was little,” Orozco said, “I’d listen to Jewish music, to Israeli music, and be deeply affected by it. I felt that this was the music of my heart, of my soul. I remember, as a child looking at photos of the Western Wall and crying.”

Several offered anecdotes that indicated that they, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.

This visceral certainty about their Jewish roots may or may not be backed by hard evidence, but it’s what they feel, in blood and bone, fueled by family traditions — a feeling made all the stronger by the empathetic bond they have with those who, over the centuries, were unjustly coerced into professing a faith that was not theirs.

More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like “coming home.” By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they’re confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are. They’ve looked into themselves — and at their family history — and have returned to their true nature, which had been overlaid with alien rituals and faiths for hundreds of years.

A few at the gathering were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.