As Kulanu’s Vice President for Mexican Affairs for the past two years, I have encountered Mexico’s two Jewish communities — the 50,000-strong, well-to-do community of “establishment” Jews, descended from Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Turkey and Syria, and the 500-strong, poorer community of conversos, either convert communities or descendants of “Marranos”.
The “establishment” Jews are Orthodox and do not accept converts to Judaism easily. An Israeli-born Conservative rabbi, Samuel Lehrer, is willing to perform conversions and has served as the spiritual leader to all five of the converso havurot. Rabbi Lehrer, who leads a Conservative congregation in Mexico City, receives no compensation for his work with the conversos, and faces frequent opposition both from other synagogues and from his own congregants. He is nearly 78 years old and in increasingly poor health, and it is unclear whether any successor of his at Beth Israel will take a similar interest in the conversos when he retires.
My work for Kulanu in Mexico has focused on seeking out converso groups with some interest in a relationship with Kulanu or with American Jews generally. So far, I have been able to make contact with three of the five havurot (one each in Mexico City, Puebla and Veracruz).
I visited the 20-family havurah in Puebla three times since January 1994 and translated a letter from the founder of the community for the Kulanu newsletter. I have taken this community Kulanu’s donations for siddurim and other Jewish books and personally brought gifts of kippot, haggadot and tallitot. I have also met with the Israeli ambassador to Mexico on their behalf.
My work in Mexico City has been twofold — providing technical assistance to a group of mainstream Mexican Jews desiring to establish a progressive congregation, and developing a personal relationship with Benyamin Laureano, the unofficial historian of Mexico’s conversos.
In general, I have found my interactions with both the converso communities and “mainstream” Mexican Jewry to be a tremendously enriching experience.
(Editor’s note: Yasher koach, Rick! Readers who might be interested in serving as Kulanu’s next Vice President for Mexican Affairs should contact the office.)