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A Long Way Home

A Ceremony of Return for Crypto-Jews in Phoenix

November 6, 2009

Deborah Sussman Susser is associate editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, where this article first appeared. Reprinted by permission.

Mesa, ArizonaOn Thursday, the candidates went to see the rabbi. On Friday, they visited the mikvah. And on Sunday, in a ceremony that combined Spanish, English and Hebrew, they were officially welcomed back into the Jewish community by a man whose personal history mirrors theirs.

The Ceremony of Return, held Oct. 25 in a drab, low-ceilinged room behind a church in Mesa and presided over by Rabbi Yosef Garcia, the spiritual leader of Avdey Torah Hayah in Mesa and member of the Association of Crypto Jews of the Americas, marked the return to Judaism of seven members of the "B'nei Anusim Hispanic Sephardi."

The keynote speaker was Rabbi Albert Plotkin, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, and the honored guest speaker was Adam Schwartz, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.

A handful of people, including relatives of the candidates, looked on during the ceremony, which was filmed by a cameraman from Channel 12.

A few of the candidates came from Mesa, while others had traveled from Texas, Mexico City and Puerto Rico. After receiving a certificate from Garcia, each candidate spoke briefly, some in English, some in Spanish. Several were overcome by tears.

"I want to thank almighty Hashem for not forgetting us," said Samuel Saldana, a 54-year-old native of Brownsville, Texas. "Our families have suffered for many years. It's been almost 300-400 years (since) we've been called to the Torah to make aliyah. Thank you all for allowing us the opportunity to return to our people."

Samuel and his twin brother, Saul, found Garcia on the Internet about eight months ago, they say, and the rabbi visited them in Miller, Texas, where they live, shortly thereafter. Neither twin was a practicing Jew growing up, but their grandparents were.

The brothers drove 13 hours to attend the ceremony. They arrived Thursday and planned to leave soon after the service ended.

"It feels great," Saul says of the experience. "No words to describe it," Samuel says.

Saul revises his statement: "If there's a word greater than 'great,' that's it."

Scottsdale resident Steve Weitzenkorn, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Bonnie Kabin, says he considers the crypto-Jews "a modern-day miracle." Weitzenkorn met Garcia in Weitzenkorn's capacity as a board member for Camp Swift, a Jewish community camp in Prescott that serves underprivileged children, and became interested in Garcia's background and the crypto-Jewish community.

"I realized we could help him," Weitzenkorn says. "I thought about all the waves of Jewish immigration that have come to this country and all the resources the Jewish community devoted to helping those waves settle. I realized there wasn't anything equivalent for this wave. If we could raise awareness in not just the Phoenix Jewish community but the American Jewish community, it would resonate."

The Thursday before the ceremony, the seven candidates met with Plotkin, at Plotkin's house. There, Garcia says, Plotkin asked them pointed questions such as, "What makes you think you are Jewish?" and "What in your past leads you to believe you might be Jewish?"

At the ceremony, Plotkin, 89 years old and a veteran of Jewish outreach both within and without the Jewish community, addressed the group in forceful terms.

"You are Jews," he told them. "You are living the Jewish life, and the Jewish people welcome you."

Then, motioning to Garcia, he said, "I am truly blessed that I met this rabbi. I knew he was going to do what I couldn't do--bring you back."

After the ceremony, the candidates and their guests sat on folding chairs at card tables eating cookies and cake baked by Garcia's wife, Yvonne, while, from a boom box, Ofra Haza crooned "You've Got a Friend." Nine-year-old Judith, daughter of Sulamita Garcia Perez, the only woman to receive a certificate that day, flitted from table to table in a pale green dress with a full skirt and wide sash; she got the dress for Shabbat, she says. Her uncle, Pablo, and cousin, Josue, also received certificates, as did Hector Lee, a Mexico City resident whose family includes B'nei Anusim from China on one side and Jews who fled Spain for Mexico on the other.

"The Saldana brothers are from the same stock as my mother's family," Lee says.

"I think this is a wonderful beginning," says Garcia, who discovered his own Jewish roots when he was in his 30s. "I think each and every single one of them felt that this was a beginning in their life, not an ending. Not a culmination, but a new door opening for the Jewish community as a whole being able to embrace the latest immigrants coming. ... It's a new chapter."

Garcia hopes to hold another Ceremony of Return next year. "There were 12 candidates who were unable to come due to finances or personal reasons," he says. "Half of them were from here. Half of them were from Brazil, New York, Florida and Canada. They find me by word of mouth or on the Internet."

Carlos Padilla, a 27-year-old veterinary technician from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, says he heard about Garcia from a Moroccan Jew he met when he was looking to convert to Judaism. The Moroccan told him, "You don't need to convert, you need Rabbi Garcia."

"My family practiced Christianity," Padilla says, "but the first thing my father taught me was the Shema." There were mezuzot on all the doorposts, he says, and his father ate pita bread.

"When I grew up, I connected all the dots," Padilla says. He did some family research and met with a cousin on his father's side who told him that there was an ancient menorah in the family somewhere. Today, Padilla says, only he and that cousin practice Judaism. Although the family was initially shocked, "now they respect us," Padilla says--except for his cousin's mother, who no longer speaks to her child.

Padilla's research indicates that his grandfather on his mother's side may very well have been Jewish too; Padilla believes that "Hashem" had a hand in bringing his mother and father together.

"It's written in the Scriptures that He doesn't forget about us," Padilla says. "So here I am."

Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Plural form of "mezuzah" (Hebrew for "doorpost"), it now refers to a small box containing a scroll (of the Hebrew text of the Shema prayer) which is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes. Strictly speaking, mezuzah only refers to the scroll itself, not the case in which it's housed. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") Hebrew for "The Name." Used as a substitute for the Hebrew name for God, which religious Jews are forbidden from uttering outside of prayer. ("This lovely dinner was provided by HaShem - and the Goldsteins!" or "If, HaShem willing, we arrive safely...") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "hear," the first word and name of the central Jewish prayer and statement of faith. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Deborah Susser

Deborah Susser is the associate editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and a regular contributor to KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR affiliate.

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