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New El Paso Center Opens Door to Mysterious Past for Crypto-Jews
Rabbi Stephen Leon has developed a deep interest in the history of the crypto-Jews in El Paso, his home for 28 years.
"I've been involved with the issues of crypto-Jews ever since I came to El Paso. It started that first week I was here and I met someone from Juárez who came to me because his grandmother had been lighting candles on Friday nights but he didn't know why," Leon said.
"That conversation started my interest in the subject, which over the years became a passion."
During the Spanish Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews were forced to publicly convert to Christianity but secretly adhered to Judaism. Many were ultimately expelled from Spain and Portugal to the New World. Crypto-Judaism (or "hidden Judaism," anusim in Hebrew) refers to those converts and their descendants, who often still maintain Jewish practices as family traditions without knowing why.
Leon will open the Anusim Center in August at the site of the former Holocaust Museum, 401 Wallenberg. The center will be part museum, part study center, and a place for descendants to consider a return to Judaism.
"We hope it will become a place to learn about the Inquisition, to hear testimonies, to see art exhibitions and experience quality programs. If people want to explore their identity, we want this to be the place to start, including conversion," Leon said.
Leon said Texas A&M has a Center for Hispanic-Jewish Relations, run by a colleague, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, that is a place of information. But Leon said his center will be different in that it will do outreach to crypto-Jews and offer counseling.
Leon knew about the subject before coming to El Paso. But it was in El Paso that he began to meet people who may have had Jewish roots.
"In my 15 years in New Jersey at another congregation, I had never met anyone with that background," he said.
In 1999, he received a grant from the El Paso Community Foundation to visit places in Europe where crypto-Jews have lived, including Belmonte, Portugal, a city where 300 crypto-Jews formally returned to Judaism. At the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism Biennial Convention in December 2009, he presented a resolution to make Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of mourning, an official time to educate and emphasize the Spanish Inquisition and welcome the return of what are called the B'nei Anousim.
And for the past 11 years, Leon has been hosting a summer conference on crypto-Judaic studies. This year, the conference will be Aug. 8-10 at Congregation B'nai Zion, with the unveiling of the center on Aug. 10.
Leon describes the conference as bringing together the curious with the faithful and the Catholic with the Jew.
Over the years, many Catholics have come to Leon with stories of grandparents performing rituals that they didn't understand were Jewish until Leon enlightened them.
One attorney called Leon because after the funeral Mass and burial of an aunt, she found her cousins sitting on low benches, eating round items, and with all the mirrors covered.
The cousins told the attorney their aunt had Jewish roots and followed these customs but never explained them.
"When someone passes away, you go to the house of mourning and cover the mirrors to avoid vanity, and you sit on low benches as opposed to regular chairs. You're supposed to be a little bit uncomfortable during the week you stay home to mourn," Leon said. Jewish people also will eat round food, like bagels or lentils, to signify that life goes on.
"They are definite Jewish customs that certain non-Jewish people do — they just don't know why they're doing it," he said.
El Pasoan John T. Garcia said he was raised Catholic but always knew he had Jewish roots.
"My great, great ... grandparents were Jewish and came from Spain via Portugal to escape the Inquisition," said Garcia, adding that his brother researched their genealogy.
Garcia said he made his return to Judaism about 14 years ago.
"I didn't know there was an open door, otherwise I would have done it before," he said. "I feel at home, very comfortable and where I should be."
Leon hopes to have a non-profit status for the center by August. Volunteers are working on grants.
"This inauguration, I believe, will change the Jewish world. The news is out and the momentum is growing. Once our doors are open, we hope to be accessible by anyone," he said.