A funny thing happened on the way to the monastery ...
Juan Mejia, of Oklahoma City, once dreamed of becoming a Roman Catholic monk, but a life-changing discovery that began with a joke set him on a different path.
Mejia said he was 15 when he attended a family Christmas gathering in his native Bogota, Colombia. A relative made an off-color remark, an anti-Semitic joke actually, that made his paternal grandfather very upset.
Someone at the gathering urged the older man to explain why he was so upset, and his answer took everybody by surprise: The family descended from Jews.
Mejia said he listened as his grandfather told them that his own grandfather was Jewish, and the family's ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.
Raised in the Roman Catholic faith, his heart leaning toward becoming a monk one day, Mejia was intrigued by his grandfather's words. His only knowledge of Judaism had come from the Christian Bible up to that point. Suddenly, some of the practices of many older men in the family began to make sense, Mejia said.
“I wouldn't say it was an earth-shattering moment but it did create a curiosity, an interest (in Judaism),” he said.
For Mejia, the knowledge of his Jewish ancestry changed the course of his life. Instead of serving in a Colombian monastery alongside the Benedictine monks who taught him in grade school and high school, Mejia traveled to Israel during his college years.
On the way to the monastery, Mejia's faith journey took a huge detour. He embraced his Jewish heritage and became a rabbi.
Around the globe
Mejia, now 34, is Southwest coordinator for Be'chol Lashon, a San Francisco, Calif.-based nonprofit that works to connect people across the globe to Judaism. He moved to Oklahoma with his wife, Abby Jacobson, and their daughter, Gracia, in 2009, when Jacobson became rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City.
Mejia travels around the world these days, serving on rabbinical courts necessary to convert people to Judaism. Mejia's Spanish speaking abilities stand him in good stead in Latin and Central American countries. In fact, he just returned from a late June trip to Santa Marta, Colombia, about 1,000 miles from Bogota, where he led a conversion ceremony for a congregation of people much like himself.
Mejia said he has spent about three years translating Judaic materials in Hebrew to Spanish for the Colombian congregation and Skyping with members of the group about Jewish law and other aspects of the faith.
“The biggest thing I do is just educating people and teaching them online as they connect from wherever they are,” he said. “The virtual rabbinate is kind of a new concept.”
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, Be'chol Lashon's rabbi-in-residence, said Mejia is doing important work for the nonprofit in Central America and the southwest portion of the United States. She said he is doing something that no one else is really doing right now: creating Spanish language resources for people who have been disconnected from Judaism because of the language barrier.
“I think Juan is at the forefront of that area, at the forefront of what's happening,” she said.
Abusch-Magder said Mejia's work is helping Be'chol Lashon fulfill its mission of advocating for the diversity of Judaism. She said there are many people, like Mejia, who found that their family had Jewish roots. Then there are others who have no such heritage but who simply identify with Judaism and wish to convert.
“In America, diversity is really part of our reality,” she said.
Earlier this year, Mejia traveled to Mexico to be part of a rabbinical court of three rabbis that certified the conversion of a group of people there. Mejia said some of the converts had a Christian background and others had been agnostics. He said the first thing the rabbis did after the conversions was to marry all of the couples under Judaic law.
Another significant part of the conversion ceremonies was the prayer for people who may have wished to convert to Judaism or reconnect to their Jewish roots only to have those dreams thwarted because of religious bigotry or some other reason.
“I invited them to remember all those who could not return to the faith and told them that their conversion is really a miraculous opportunity because for 500 years, people had not been able to do this,” Mejia said.
“Many people waited for their opportunity and died before they could. Others tried but were not embraced (by others in the Jewish faith).”
Mejia said he is thankful that he lives in a time and place where interest in converting to another faith or returning to a family heritage of faith did not mean risking one's life.
He said what he eventually did would have been unthinkable in his ancestors' day.
A different path of faith
Abusch-Magder with Be'chol Lashon said families like Mejia's are no longer called crypto-Jews because the term suggests that they are hiding something or being duplicitous. According to a variety of sources, the term crypto-Judaism refers to the secret adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith, and crypto-Jews are typically descendants of Jews who secretly still maintain some Jewish traditions, often while adhering to other faiths, most commonly Catholicism.
Abusch-Magder said she prefers to use the term anusim to describe this group of Jews. She said the term comes from the Hebrew phrase “to be forced” and is more in line with what really happened to many of them during the Spanish Inquisition.
For Mejia, his grandfather's shocking pronouncement about the family's Jewish heritage started him on a search for cultural fulfillment. He learned that he is descended from Marranos, Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to become Christian converts during the Inquisition.
He said he recalled that the older men in the family would seclude themselves in their haciendas and pray with what he thought were towels. Mejia said he later learned that the towels were really Jewish prayer shawls.
He said he began talking to other teens in Bogota and learned that their families had similar backgrounds.
Mejia said his interest in Judaism grew stronger as he worked on his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the National University of Colombia. He said his staunchly Roman Catholic mother, who died when he was 18, probably would have disagreed with his choice to learn more about his Jewish heritage, but that's just what he did.
A trip to Israel in 1998 opened up a whole new world of Jewish culture and spirituality for him and Mejia said he began to feel that he had missed out on something wonderful. He said he was 20 years old and visited the Kotel, also called the Western Wall for the first time. The visit to the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem's Old City, is still a vivid memory.
“I felt an incredible sense of incompleteness, a profound sense of brokenness — if only my ancestors had clung to their identity then I would have this,” he said. “I really saw how Judaism was lived and I was quite moved.”
Mejia said he had initially planned to become a professor and take what “seemed like a very obvious route” to join the brotherhood of monks at a Colombian monastery. Instead, he returned to Bogota and sought out the tiny Orthodox Jewish community there for help and friendship and was initially rejected. He said he converted to Judaism in 2002 and went on to earn a master's degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where he met his wife. The couple both received rabbinical ordination in 2009 from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
Mejia said his wife feels he has found his calling: to help other Jews reconnect or connect for the first time to the Jewish faith.
As more and more people learned of his faith story, many of them sought out his help. He said he began to see himself as a bridge builder, helping people bridge the chasm between ancestral memories to a practicing Jewish faith.
“These people were interested in rescuing their roots. The common denominator was they were finding it extremely difficult to find a community that would accept them,” Mejia said. “My wife said ‘You have been placed by God in an interesting position' to help.”
He said that during the past few years, his relationship with the Jewish community in Colombia has become friendly, which has aided his work with his congregation of new converts. Mejia hopes to travel to Ethiopia soon to meet with a group of Africans who wish to convert to Judaism.
He said he is a long way from the monastery in terms of his departure from his Catholic upbringing. However, he said his journey is one that is still one filled with faith.
“Have Torah, will travel,” he said, laughing.
“Jews come in every color of the rainbow and every ethnic background and we have always been a global people.”