Beth Israel explores ‘Roots of the Sephardic Jews in Texas’ – Jewish Herald-Voice

Posted By on September 23, 2022

On Sunday morning, Sept. 18, the Adult Education Committee of Congregation Beth Israel welcomed Rabbi Stephen Leon, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Bnai Zion in El Paso, Texas. The Texas rabbi mesmerized local and area listeners on the Roots of the Sephardic Jews in Texas.

Historians often say that it is the victors who write the history, but they tell only half the story.

Within the first three weeks of his rabbinate in El Paso, in 1986, Rabbi Leon met with local Hispanics and others from the Mexican side of El Paso. Each person brought questions and interesting stories they learned from grandparents on their deathbeds. They wanted a rabbi to explain these stories to them. As the local residents were devoted Catholics, learning that having a Jewish member in their family history was unsettling to them.

Thus began Rabbi Leons search to learn about Conversos (or Anusim). With his guidance and assistance, he sought to help those who desired to seek a spiritual home and hopefully return to their Jewish roots.

During the presentation, organized by Ed Hersh, a member of the Adult Education Committee, Rabbi Leon explained that the purpose of the Spanish Inquisition was not to murder and eliminate the Jews, but rather to convert them to Catholicism. Tragically, thousands were killed for refusing to convert; many more left Spain and Portugal for safer environments. For those who stayed and converted, many religiously went underground to practice their Judaism while publicly masquerading as Catholics.

These new Catholics often were called Marranos, a derogatory term for swine.

Later in time, especially as the new Catholics escaped Spain for the New World where they could practice Judaism, they often were referred to as crypto Jews and today as Anusim, those who have been spiritually violated.

Many of the stories shared with Rabbi Leon are found in his book, The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim. Today, those of Spanish descent who are interested in exploring their historical Jewish heritage or who already have returned to Judaism have the support and security of the Anusim Center in El Paso. There, they learn and practice Judaism, not only in Spanish but also Ladino.

This year, the Anusim Center will conduct Rosh Hashanah services for the first time. The Center will be receiving a gift a Torah from a synagogue that is closing its own doors.

The feedback from the Sunday morning program was electric, as families in our community can trace themselves back to Sephardic Jewry. There is renewed interest in continuing these conversations and learning more about the Sephardic Jews of Texas.

For information about Beth Israels Adult Education programming, contact David Scott, director of Lifelong Learning and Engagement, at [emailprotected] or 713-771-6221. For information about the Anusim Center in El Paso, contact Rabbi Leon at 915-526-3693.

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Beth Israel explores 'Roots of the Sephardic Jews in Texas' - Jewish Herald-Voice

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