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family Back row, from left: Paola, Salomon, Josue, Elida, Graciela, Heriberto, Ivan, Rabbi Felipe Goodman.
Front, from left: Rabbi Juan Mejia, Rabbi Daniel Mehlman. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Mehlman
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Amigos in San Miguel de Allende: A Shavuot Story of Conversion

 

By Rabbi Daniel Mehlman

Jewish Journal
Published: June 1, 2011

Earlier this year, I got a call from an old friend, Rabbi Juan Mejia. Juan asked me if I’d be willing to accompany him and Rabbi Felipe Goodman to San Miguel de Allende for a couple of days in early February. Juan, Felipe and I have a lot in common: We laugh at the same jokes, we all speak Spanish, and we’re all rabbis. A little getaway to Mexico in the middle of winter? Sure, I could fit that into my schedule — no problem, I said.

Three Three Spanish-speaking rabbis were needed for a beit din (rabbinic court) in the quaint village of San Miguel de Allende. Our purpose was conversions. It sounds like the set-up to a joke: One day a Colombian rabbi from Oklahoma City (Juan), a Mexican rabbi from Las Vegas (Felipe) and an Argentinean rabbi from Los Angeles (me) get on a plane and fly to a little colonial town in Mexico. Many of the people in the town have never seen a rabbi before; as a matter of fact, it’s the first time in more than a century that three rabbis have gathered together in the town for a beit din. The townsfolk don’t know quite what to make of them ...

So, late on a Saturday night, I went to LAX to catch a plane. I knew the flight number and the time, but I didn’t really know where I was flying, exactly. I met Felipe and his assistant at the gate, and together we boarded the red-eye to Guanajuato/Leon. Exhausted, we landed an hour late. Waiting to meet us was a young man with payot wearing a black kippah, white shirt, black slacks, black vest and tzitzit. I have to admit, we gawked. It was as if a character had just stepped out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” — only with a much darker complexion.

The young man introduced himself as Josue and drove us to his house in Guanajuato. There, his wife, Paola, and their 2-year-old son, Salomon, joined us for the next leg of our journey. Salomon is almost criminally cute, and he kept us entertained and in high spirits, despite our fatigue from the overnight flight. We continued driving for another hour and a half until we reached San Miguel de Allende.Spanish-speaking rabbis were needed for a beit din (rabbinic court) in the quaint village of San Miguel de Allende. Our purpose was conversions. It sounds like the set-up to a joke: One day a Colombian rabbi from Oklahoma City (Juan), a Mexican rabbi from Las Vegas (Felipe) and an Argentinean rabbi from Los Angeles (me) get on a plane and fly to a little colonial town in Mexico. Many of the people in the town have never seen a rabbi before; as a matter of fact, it’s the first time in more than a century that three rabbis have gathered together in the town for a beit din. The townsfolk don’t know quite what to make of them ...

So, late on a Saturday night, I went to LAX to catch a plane. I knew the flight number and the time, but I didn’t really know where I was flying, exactly. I met Felipe and his assistant at the gate, and together we boarded the red-eye to Guanajuato/Leon. Exhausted, we landed an hour late. Waiting to meet us was a young man with payot wearing a black kippah, white shirt, black slacks, black vest and tzitzit. I have to admit, we gawked. It was as if a character had just stepped out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” — only with a much darker complexion.

The young man introduced himself as Josue and drove us to his house in Guanajuato. There, his wife, Paola, and their 2-year-old son, Salomon, joined us for the next leg of our journey. Salomon is almost criminally cute, and he kept us entertained and in high spirits, despite our fatigue from the overnight flight. We continued driving for another hour and a half until we reached San Miguel de Allende.

We arrived at the home of Dr. Daniel Lessner, co-president of the Jewish community in San Miguel de Allende. He graciously served us a sumptuous breakfast — and, immediately after, herded the six adult conversion candidates and us into another car, in which we drove to a palatial home. Eager to get started, they urged us to begin the beit din immediately.

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman

Rabbi Daniel Mehlman officiates with Josue and Paola under the chuppah. Behind the bride, Rabbi Juan Mejia videotapes with a small camera. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Mehlman

Before us stood six people who didn’t know what to expect from three American rabbis. As they faced the beit din waiting for the questioning to begin, we must have seemed formidable. It was evident they felt a considerable measure of fear and anxiety. Little by little, they began to open up. One by one, they shared their stories with us.

In their journeys to become Jews, most of them had encountered daunting obstacles. Some of them had already been denied the opportunity to convert. When they had inquired about it in Mexican synagogues.

hey had been summarily turned away; they had even been prevented from attending services.

For more than a year, five of the six conversion candidates had to drive for an hour or more every week in order to attend services and classes in San Miguel de Allende, because every other place had rejected them.

Their stories were remarkable; we felt privileged to hear and witness them. Each personal journey was both a struggle and an epiphany. These six adults deeply yearned to become part of the Jewish people. It made me think of how often we who are born Jewish take our rich traditions and cultural heritage for granted. All six candidates were well prepared and passed with flying colors. As I reflect on their inspiring stories, I realize that as much as we are dayanim (judges), we are also witnesses to people’s entrance into the Jewish tradition. It is an honor beyond measure. The depth of their commitment to Judaism inspires me.

After the beit din, another man joined us for a long lunch. Just off the bus from a five-hour ride from Guadalajara, he accompanied us on a walk through the charming town center. This man had ridden for five hours to be with us for only a short time, to see if we could help him pursue his own dream of conversion, along with his wife and their two little girls. He rode five hours, spent just two hours with us, then rode back for five more hours — just because he wants to live his life as a Jew.

That evening we dined at the home of an American-born member of the community. There we met with several wonderful people, many of them Americans who had retired in charming San Miguel de Allende. After dinner, we were allowed a few short hours of sleep; we had to arise at daybreak to go to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

We were a tired but eager caravan of 12 people, driving to the Rio Laja. Abutting the river were three small lagoons fed by flowing thermal springs. Despite the early hour, the lagoons were occupied when we arrived. Townspeople were using them to take baths and wash their laundry, as many of them had no access to running water. So, eager with anticipation, we waited. After a while, one of the lagoons was vacated, and our natural mikveh was free. One by one, the adults immersed themselves. Little Salomon, the seventh to convert, was handed to Paola in the mikveh after both his parents had their tevilah (immersion). Now we were all Jews.

Time to party! From there we drove to a beautiful colonial hotel and showed everyone what Jews do best: eat. It was an amazing reception, with more than 100 people attending. And after the eating, naturally, came the talking. Everyone thanked everyone else for making the moment possible. They thanked the three rabbis for donating their time. And can anyone guess whether the three rabbis each wanted to get in on the act and give a little speech, too?

Rabbi Mejia was very emotional in his remarks, having personally experienced the same kind of rejection when he wanted to convert in his native Colombia. Rabbi Goodman emphasized the fact that the three members of The Rabbinical Assembly constituted a beit din that is widely recognized. I mentioned that on the same week we learn of the lighting of the menorah — our seven-branched candelabra and the oldest Jewish symbol — we participated in an event in which seven new lights were added to our people.

After the speeches, all six adults read the Declaration of Faith, in unison, and by then there was not a dry eye in the house. After the new members of the Jewish people received their certificates of conversion, a surprise took place — a Jewish wedding. Under the chuppah, the three rabbis officiated at the union of Josue and Paola. With a wide-eyed Salomon looking on, Yehoshua Ilan and Adina Tamar were married according to the laws of Moses and the precepts of Israel. A wonderful reception with more to eat came after, with an opportunity to mingle with the wonderful community in San Miguel de Allende.

And here’s another note: Remember the man who joined us after a five-hour bus ride? Last week, he flew to Los Angeles with his wife and two daughters, ages 7 and 4. They went straight to the American Jewish University to stand before the Rabbinical Assembly beit din. There they shared their remarkable story. Their yearning to join the Jewish people took them on a journey to a faraway land, a bit like Abraham and Sarah.

That evening, 20 or so people gathered at a charming little synagogue in Studio City and became an instant family. Most didn’t know one another; none knew the bride and groom or their daughters — yet they celebrated together. Yes, once again I was lucky enough to attend another Jewish wedding under a chuppah, to witness them sealing their commitment to each other in our traditional Jewish way. Jewish for only a few hours, they shared a millennia-old ceremony. Not only are they now part of our future together, they share our long history as well. Candlesticks and a Kiddush Cup were among the presents they received from people whom they had never before met. Then they spent a whole Shabbat with their brand-new community. The day spoke of a promising future for all Jews.

I will return to San Miguel de Allende. I must go back, not only for a Shabbat, but to be part of another beit din. I want to witness the next conversions that will occur in this holy place. We, the ones who were born Jews, often take our birthright for granted. We rarely dwell on what it means to be Jewish. On this trip, I was reminded that the Jewish journey is one of the most amazing adventures a person could experience. Every time I witness a conversion, my heart fills with joy and hope. Am Yisrael Chai — the people of Israel live. We are diverse, we are joyous, and despite our tragedies, we are yet alive. L’dor v’dor — from one generation to the next, the torch passes, and continues to be a light unto the world.

 

Originally published here: http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/amigos_in_san_miguel_de_allende_a_
shavuot_story_of_conversion_20110601/%C2%A0

 


 

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