Texas Rabbi Claims Mexico Is Playing Host to a Lost Tribe

VERACRUZ, Mexico To one Texas rabbi, the conquistadors who landed here centuries ago left behind a treasure more precious than the gold they sought: Hidden behind this city’s sun-blistered walls, and throughout the country, he says, is a lost tribe of Israel.

“Hernán Cortés had secret Jews among his conquerors,” Rabbi Samuel Lerer tells a rapt Mexican audience at a Seder in this steamy Caribbean port. Fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, many Jews traveled among their Roman Catholic tormenters to Spain’s colonies, concealing their religion. “But many still practiced their faith for years,” he says.

Today, says the 85-year-old rabbi, the offspring of those Jews populate a hemisphere. And while most eventually converted to Christianity, their descendants are potential converts to Judaism.

Rabbi Lerer has built a career on his theory, and it has earned him a place in the record books. Since he was ordained in Palestine in 1938, Rabbi Lerer has converted nearly 3,000 people — more than any rabbi in at least two centuries, says the American Rabbinical Assembly in New York. Most of his converts are Mexican and live in communities he has established since he first came here in 1968.

If Rabbi Lerer’s view of history is correct, Mexico’s conversos may be the tip of an ethnic iceberg. How many may yet return to the faith? Technically, he says with a smile, “it should be in the millions.”

Oy vey, José!

Of course, many of the New World’s first settlers were Jews fleeing the Inquisition, including the 52 Jewish families Christopher Columbus left in Costa Rica on his last voyage to America in 1502. Indeed, Costa Rica’s first flag featured the sixpointed Star of David. And many experts believe that early settlements such as Monterrey, Mexico, and Medellín, Colombia, emerged as commercial centers, despite their remote locations, precisely because Jews fleeing the Inquisition sought them out as havens.

That certainly rings true as far as Rabbi Lerer’s Veracruz congregation is concerned. “It’s like we always felt we were Jews somehow,” says one member, Judith Valdez. “Now we’re recovered.”

Asher Herrera Llanos agrees. “My grandfather came from Spain,” says the leader of the Veracruz temple, resplendent in a snow-white guayabera shirt and matching skullcap. “I was always told his grandfather said his grandfather was Jewish,” says Mr. Llanos, whose given name was Carlos before he adopted a Hebrew replacement.

Mexico’s Jews number fewer than 50,000, according to the Jewish Committee in Mexico City, the organization that keeps the tally. But that doesn’t include Rabbi Lerer’s converts, with whom the committee hasn’t had any contact, according to one of its members. Some in Mexico’s traditional Jewish community, in fact, think Rabbi Lerer is a little too liberal with his admissions policy.

Though he retired to San Antonio last fall, Rabbi Lerer still travels to Mexico every month or so. He plans to return to Veracruz in August to complete five more conversions. As part of the ceremony, he says, the three women who will become Jews will take their mikvah, or ritual bath, in the sea. Since Jewish law requires males to be circumcised, the two already-circumcised boys among the soon-to-be converts will ceremonially repeat the ritual with a superficial cut to symbolize their new covenant with God.

First assigned to a congregation in Mexico City, Rabbi Lerer began his quest when he heard a rumor about a Jewish sect in Venta Prieta, about 100 miles to the north. It was said they looked and dressed like Indians, spoke no Hebrew and didn’t circumcise their men.

The truth turned out to be even more intriguing. Venta Prieta elders told the rabbi that the village had been a refuge from the Inquisition, which lasted here until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. Many families had since assimilated, but those who kept the faith still guarded a Torah, the scroll containing the first five books of the Bible, though none of them knew its origin. Their rustic sanctuary also included an “eternal lamp,” fueled, as in biblical times, with olive oil. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Rabbi Lerer recalls.

And they had never seen anyone like him. Convinced their pedigree was genuine, the rabbi converted more than 100 people in a mass ceremony. For the next three decades, he commuted regularly from Mexico City to perform marriages, bar mitzvahs and circumcisions.

He also opened his doors to any Jew seeking to be “recovered.” As word spread, pilgrims came to Mexico City from all over the country for conversion classes. Soon, new congregations sprang up in Puebla and Veracruz.

As their numbers grew, the converted Jews began sending their children to Israel. Under the Law of Return, any Jew can claim Israeli citizenship, including those converted by a recognized rabbi. Rabbi Lerer certainly is recognized. He was ordained even before there was a Jewish state. Before that, he fought as a gun-toting Zionist in the militant IrGun independence movement.

In all, about 500 Mexican conversos have made it to the Promised Land, which, not incidentally, faces a chronic shortage of low-wage workers. Israeli officials are thrilled with Rabbi Lerer’s work: Not only will his charges wash dishes and sweep floors, but they are also practicing Jews.

The Venta Prieta congregation’s Ilanith Valencia Tellez, whose parents were married by Rabbi Lerer, says her brother Isaac now works in a restaurant in Herzelia on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Rivka (nee: Victoria) Morgan Dominguez is sending her daughters Sarbia and Barbara to join their cousin, who works as a baker in Jerusalem.

A Local Backlash

The emigration has caused a bit of a backlash in Mexico, where more entrenched Jewish communities complain that Rabbi Lerer’s open-admissions policy makes him as much a labor recruiter as a religious leader. “Israelis need workers,” says Abraham Jasqui, a former president of the local Jewish community group in Mexico City. “They will recognize anyone as a Jew as long as they’re not Arabs.”

Some established congregations complain that Rabbi Lerer is converting without regard to tradition, for instance, by circumcising the sons of non-Jewish mothers, who under Jewish law aren’t considered Jews unless they convert, regardless of their father’s religions. They also say he is cutting corners to run up his conversion numbers, and that Israel, by recognizing his converts, is putting labor needs ahead of religious standards.

Not so, Rabbi Lerer says. “My Jews must pass an exam with 220 questions” before they can be converted, he says. “Most U.S. Jews couldn’t pass that test.”

The 70 conversos in Veracruz who welcomed their rabbi back in April certainly appear well tutored. Most read Hebrew, for example. A few speak it fluently.

“To tell you the truth, they’re more Jewish than me,” says Yair Gerskovich, one of two visiting Israelis attending the Seder. Mr. Gerskovich says his country would be delighted to have more conversos like his hosts. “We have a Palestinian immigration problem,” he says. “Not a Mexican immigration problem.”