El Paso rabbi tells 'Post' Jews in solidarity with Hispanic community

According to experts on the Spanish Inquisition between 10 and 20% of El Paso's population have Jewish origins.

August 5, 2019 00:05
2 minute read.
Mourners take part in a vigil near the border fence between Mexico and the U.S after a mass shooting

Mourners take part in a vigil near the border fence between Mexico and the U.S after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso U.S. in Ciudad Juarez. (photo credit: REUTERS/CARLOS SANCHEZ)

When alleged El Paso gunman Patrick Crusius was penning his online manifesto against Hispanics, he was also targeting the local Jewish community, according to a retired Conservative rabbi from the Texas city.

“El Paso has a population of about 800,000 people and 80% of them are Hispanic,” Rabbi Stephen A. Leon told The Jerusalem Post hours after Crusius allegedly opened fire at an El Paso Walmart, killing 20 people. “Estimations tell us that at least 15% of the general population have Jewish origins. The same is true for Juarez, our neighboring Mexican city.”

Leon is the emeritus rabbi of B’nai Zion, a conservative congregation affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is also one of the leading experts on the unique identity of the local Jewish community, which is rooted in the history of the city.

“I moved to El Paso in 1986,” he said, “Then, as today, there were about 5,000 Jews living in the city. However, just a couple of days after I arrived, someone who was not a member of the community came to talk to me and explained that although he and his family identified as religious Catholics, his mother would light candles on Friday night.

Shortly after, someone else who had just lost a close relative revealed that their mourning practices included covering mirrors and sitting on low benches.”

These first encounters with El Paso residents, who were not identifying as Jews and yet were observing certain Jewish rituals, prompted Leon to start a journey exploring the phenomenon of Bnei Anusim.

Bnei Anusim (crypto-Jews) are the descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity to escape persecution, especially at the hands of the Catholic Inquisition. Very often, they continued to maintain Jewish practices in secret and passed them on generation after generation.

Over the centuries, countless Bnei Anusim found themselves in Latin and Central America, and many eventually established themselves in the United States, including in El Paso, which lies at the border between the US and Mexico.

In 2017, the rabbi published The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim: A Rabbi’s Memoir of an Incredible People. Over three decades, he has helped numerous families in both cities to come back to their Jewish heritage. Many families in El Paso today are active members of B’nai Zion.

“At least half of the kids in our Hebrew school come from these families,” he told the Post. “When they reach 13 and they celebrate their bar mitzvah, it is very special to see them stating that they are accepting a faith that was denied to their ancestors.”

Leon said that the Jewish community in El Paso was in shock over the shooting.

“We feel grief but also frustration: Why do people do such evil acts?” he said. “I was at that mall just a few days ago with my grandchildren. Other than for the fact that the shooting happened on Shabbat, it could have been us. It could have been anyone.”

He added that the Jewish community had encouraged people to donate blood and to participate in a fundraising campaign for the victims. On Sunday night, they planned to attend the interfaith prayer vigil organized in the city.

“As soon as we know who the victims are, we will reach out to them,” he said. “As Jews, our job is to make the world a better place. We have to fight the fight even stronger.”

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