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Oklahoma City man's faith journey leads him to Judaism

Juan Mejia, a native of Bogota, Colombia, knew he would someday connect others to faith, he just didn't know that it would not be the faith in which he grew up.
by Carla Hinton Published: July 8, 2012

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).”

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by Carla Hinton
Religion Editor
Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide...
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