Learning from Rabbi Samuel Lerer

Lighting New Candles for the Anousim

Common wisdom holds that there is no irreplaceable person. This common wisdom is hard to dispute because the encroachment of old age inevitably dims humanitys greatest lights. Replacing them is a formidable challenge.

One of these great lights is Rabbi Samuel Lerer, and our challenge is to light new candles to shine upon his work. I will only briefly restate how and where Rabbi Lerer has spread his light. His past work has been ably documented by such varied publications as The Wall Street Journal and The Jerusalem Report (see the references at the end).

Like many great lights, Rabbi Lerer didn’t know what he was getting himself into when his curiosity first led him to the field he has dominated for nearly 35 years. He was dragged into it merely by accepting a conventional pulpit with the Beth Israel congregation in Mexico City. This is a Conservative group with a strong core of foreign, mostly Anglo, membership. The congregation fits easily into the Jewish scene of Mexico City, which boasts nine other synagogues. Together, they serve the Mexican Jewish community as its epicenter, since most of the 50,000 Mexican Jews live in the capital.

Rabbi Lerer’s curiosity was piqued early in his tenure in Mexico by reports that in the hinterland, a nascent Jewish community was struggling to exist and had been for a number of decades. This community seems to spring from a Jewish fire that had been assumed extinguished centuries ago. We’re speaking of the “Marranos,” Iberian Jews (from Spain and Portugal), forced by the onset of the Inquisition in 1492 to give up their Jewish faith. The sad fate of the “Marranos” has long been mourned in Jewish circles. However, the fact that Marrano-Jewish customs were maintained underground for more than half a millennium, right into modern times, was a big surprise for the Jewish mainstream.

It now seems that former Jews, outside of the sight of their neighbors, maintained what Jewish customs they could throughout the Hispanic world for more than half a millennium. One story goes that they got their name Marranos (“pigs” in old Spanish) by a subterfuge used to maintain the spirit of Jewish dietary laws. They made a show of eating pork in full view of old-school Catholics to affirm their Catholic bona-fides; once safely out of sight of prying eyes, they deliberately threw up the pork meal.

One nascent community Rabbi Lerer found is located less than a two-hour drive from Mexico City, in Venta Prieta, a settlement that has been absorbed over time into the larger nearby town of Pachuca in the State of Hidalgo. The Jewish community there dates its aboveground current from the early 1930s, fed by the wellspring of its founders, the brothers Téllez. Before they made their remarkable decision to become openly Jewish, the brothers were unremarkable citizens of Venta Prieta. They became activated when they discovered, relatively late in life, that they were offspring of “Marranos.” By the time Rabbi Lerer heard about them, their efforts had resulted in a congregation of some 130 souls, mostly relatives of the founders and their spouses.

Rabbi Lerer found that their knowledge of Judaism stemmed from old traditions, new books, and an occasional visitor from the mainstream Jewish community. However, both Rabbi Lerer and the community leaders realized they needed more to become full Jews in the eyes of the world. The Venta Prieta Anousim badly needed a leader who could bring them closer to the Jewish mainstream, and Rabbi Lerer became that leader. (Anousim is Hebrew for “The Forced Ones,” a term currently preferred over “Marranos.”)

“This was work that came from my heart,” Rabbi Lerer said, “It was all volunteer.” He spoke with me the day before Rosh HaShana 5763, in a hotel room in Mexico City. He had retired to San Antonio, Texas, in 1999, and returned to Mexico to help lead the holiday services at his old Beth Israel congregation. His visit back to Mexico was filled with nostalgia and emotion. I was lucky to have him squeeze me in for a talk between taking care of old business and celebrating the New Year with his friends in town.

Rabbi Lerer even today is a man of strong constitution, despite being in his 80s and having suffered several bouts with accidents and illness. At the end of our interview, his wife, Marguerite, practically had to tear photo albums out of our hands, so the rabbi would stop reminiscing and go for the siesta he needed before his extensive evening schedule began.

The photos show a powerfully built man of great determination who was animated by the deep love of the whom he had mentored. He earned that love as he instructed them and ultimately converted them formally to Judaism. It was confirmed as, over the years, he married young couples, and then circumcised and bar mitzvahed their children. How many? Although each conversion class that Rabbi Lerer led made a page for his scrapbook, even he has lost count. The number is reliably estimated at well over 3,000 Jewish souls plus their offspring. The returning Jews may well number close to 5,000 today, or about ten percent of the overall Jewish population of Mexico.

“It’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Rabbi Lerer said to me. “Just realize how many Jews there were in Spain and consider the natural population increase since the start of the Spanish Empire in the 1500s. You’re forced to conclude that there must be millions in the Hispanic world who must be conscious on some level of their Jewish ancestry. Many of them would want to learn about that background if they had the chance.”

“Too bad life is so short,” Rabbi Lerer pined. “I think our efforts just about hit the critical point where the ball could really start to roll when I realized that I had to retire. A few more years, and who knows what we might have been able to accomplish?”

Well, to tell the truth, Rabbi Lerer has accomplished an incredible amount. Five congregations of ex-Marranos are functioning and growing in various areas of Mexico. The one perhaps closest to his heart is Kehila Beth Shmuel Simja Lerer in Veracruz, obviously named after its great patron and supporter. Excitedly, Rabbi Lerer spoke of planning to go there one more time to marry off two young disciples this December. May God give him the strength to make this pilgrimage to his past.

However, we had to keep coming back from reminiscing about the past to the main purpose of my interview with Rabbi Lerer, which was, “What about the future?” What can we do when a great light needs to withdraw from the scene? I was pursuing this conundrum in my position as a vice-president of Kulanu. We fully join Rabbi Lerer in the quest to reunite world Jewry with its “Marrano” past.

The future isn’t rosy, I found. Actively reaching out to the nascent returnees isn’t generally admired or even appreciated in Mexico. The mainstream Mexican Jewish community has a history of keeping to itself. Its relations with the outside world are centered on carefully monitoring and balancing its stance in relation to the monolithic majority of Catholic Mexico. Converting nominal Catholics to Judaism is not regarded as a way to keep up this balanced relationship, even if it is agreed that, way back, they had Jewish ancestors. Only Rabbi Lerer had the strength and respect to buck convention and devise and maintain a system for converting would-be Jews from Anous stock.

Our musings about “what next” first focused on rabbinic assets that might be available. Rabbi Lerer listed the merits of a few rabbis in the United States who have the connections to Mexico and the know-how to follow up on his conversion program. The job remains to find and empower these rabbis to take on this job. Rabbi Lerer thought that this is one thing Kulanu can do. We noted his leads. They are possibilities, not sure things.

“However, keep in mind that rabbinic work with the Anousim doesn’t have to look overwhelming,” Rabbi Lerer said. “The leaders in my communities are motivated and capable, and they can do a lot for themselves.”

Rabbi Lerer explained: “I left them my system and a study guide that leads potential converts through the main points of Judaism. It covers Jewish history, customs, religious practices, and Hebrew. They have to be able to follow and even lead parts of a standard Jewish service. Then there is a 220-part final test they have to pass before I would approve conversion.

“I have counseled the leadership on how to prepare for a conversion ceremony. If a mohel is needed for ritual circumcision, that’s also arranged, certainly in Veracruz. There’s a doctor in the community who learned the medical skills in college. I instructed her in the Jewish ritual for a normative circumcision. She’s on call.”

“So, basically, everything is set for a rabbi who will come in and convene a Beth Din for the conversion. One rabbi is enough. Leaders of the community can make up the other two of the minimum-size standard Beth Din. In fact, community leaders could theoretically make up the entire Beth Din, but Jewish custom has required that there be a rabbi. We have to find the rabbi that will do it.”

Next, we explored identifying contact persons who can form a network of support for the nascent communities. Fortunately, Kulanu isn’t entirely new to the scene. One respected past activist is Richard Kulick, who wrote the chapter on Mexico for Kulanu’s flagship publication, Jews in Places You Never Thought Of. Clearly, these contacts have to be renewed. Rabbi Lerer could give me names for the network, but that’s only the easy part of the job!

When you come to an Anous community like Venta Prieta, as I did a couple of years ago, you can expect a cordial welcome and open hospitality. But you can’t expect to be entrusted with the intricacies and needs of the community in a single visit. That’s true even if you come well introduced, as I did, in the company of the then-president of Beth Israel, Peter Koenigsberger.

Rabbi Lerer gave me an upbeat letter of introduction, but even so, the process isn’t going to be easy. However, Jews in unlikely places depend on help from unlikely places. I trust that Kulanu is up to lighting new candles to find new supporters so that the great light of Rabbi Lerer can continue to shine on the Mexican Anous communities. If you want to be one of these new candles, you can contact me at heppnershanamax@aol.com