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Conference Helps Jews Reconnect With Faith

August 1, 2008

By Maria Cortes Gonzalez, El Paso Times, Texas

Aug. 1–EL PASO — Sonya Loya was raised Catholic, but in practicing her faith, she often felt that “things weren’t quite right.”

Five years ago, the New Mexico resident went to her parents to ask for their blessing in researching her heritage.

“My father surprised me by saying, ‘I knew I was Jewish since I was 6 years old,’ ” she said.

Loya’s family is representative of the phenomenon of Beni Anousim, people of Spanish descent who return to Judaism after their ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

Loya, who studied her Jewish faith with Rabbi Stephen Leon of B’Nai Zion, said it was a special feeling when she was cleansed in the mikveh, a bath to gain spiritual purity.

“I can’t even describe it; it was a connection I had never felt to God. I finally felt like I belonged, that I was home,” she said.

Loya, who lives and works in Ruidoso as a glass artist, runs the Bat-Tziyon Hebrew Learning Center, adjoined to her studio. Along with B’Nai Zion, the center is gearing up for the fifth annual Sephardic Anousim Conference this weekend at the synagogue.

Loya said her center is low-key with little signage. But often the people who enter her store, end up in there for a life-changing reason.

“I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people have come through and how many have ended up having conversations with Rabbi Leon because they felt the very same thing,” she said.

Leon became acquainted with Crypto-Jews in 1989, when he started

getting questions from Christians who unwittingly were following Jewish traditions.

One Juarez man’s grandmother had lighted candles on Friday nights for years. It is the way Jewish women welcome the Sabbath.

Both Leon and Loya say there have been a lot of research and books on Crypto-Jews that provide answers to people who think their ancestors might have been Jewish.

“It’s been very revealing to me. I never encountered it in my previous experience in the Northeast, in New Jersey,” Leon said, adding that he suspects that 10 percent to 15 percent of the Hispanic population in El Paso and Juarez has Jewish roots.

Andree Aelion Brooks, a journalist, author and lecturer specializing in Jewish history, said in a telephone interview from New York that people discover their Jewish ancestry in different ways.

“But interest is rising because of communication today. The Internet allows people to access their genealogy, and people are busy chasing their ancestral roots the way they never did before,” she said.

Brooks, who will speak at the conference, said people don’t necessarily look into the Jewish faith because they suddenly have an affinity for the religion.

“It’s normally more to do with a return to their tribal heritage, more of an ethnic return,” she said.

That’s not to say that many of them don’t become invested in their faith.

Leon, who has helped more than 30 families return to their Jewish faith, said “I find that people who go through this experience are the most passionate about it. Very often, people that are born Jewish take their religion for granted. These people do not.”

Maria Cortes Gonzalez may be reached at mcortes@elpasotimes.com;546-6150.

The fifth annual Sephardic Anousim Conference will take place at B’Nai Zion Congregation, 805 Cherry Hill. The cost is $110 for all programs and meals. Friday and Saturday meals can be bought separately. Information: 833-2222.

Here’s the schedule:

Friday –6:15 p.m.: Shabbat evening services, followed by traditional Shabbat dinner. Keynote speaker: Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, Orthodox rabbi and scribe.

Saturday –9:30 a.m.: Shabbat morning services.

–12:15 p.m.: Lunch. Speaker: Andree Aelion Brooks, researcher, author of “The Woman Who Defied Kings, The Life and Time of Dona Gracia Nasi.” Speaker: Moshe Otero, Rabbinic student and former Christian minister.

–3 to 7 p.m.: Shabbat rest.

–7 p.m.: Mincha service.

–7:30 p.m.: Seudah Shleesheet. Speaker: Vanessa Paloma, international scholar and musician. Topic: Sephardic music and traditions from Morocco.

–8:30 p.m.: Ma’ariv & Havdallah. Sephardic concert: Vanessa Paloma.

Sunday –8:30 a.m.: services

–9 a.m.: Bagel breakfast. Speaker: Jack Zeller, immediate past president of Kulanu. Topic: Bringing back the lost tribes of Israel. Panel discussion with speakers.

Make plans The fifth annual Sephardic Anousim Conference will take place at B’Nai Zion Congregation, 805 Cherry Hill. The cost is $110 for all programs and meals. Friday and Saturday meals can be bought separately. Information: 833-2222. Here’s the schedule: Friday –6:15 p.m.: Shabbat evening services, followed by traditional Shabbat dinner. Keynote speaker: Rabbi Nissan Ben-Avraham, Orthodox rabbi and scribe. Saturday

–9:30 a.m.: Shabbat morning services.

–12:15 p.m.: Lunch. Speaker: Andree Aelion Brooks, researcher, author of “The Woman Who Defied Kings, The Life and Time of Dona Gracia Nasi.” Speaker: Moshe Otero, Rabbinic student and former Christian minister.

–3 to 7 p.m.: Shabbat rest.

–7 p.m.: Mincha service.

–7:30 p.m.: Seudah Shleesheet. Speaker: Vanessa Paloma, international scholar and musician. Topic: Sephardic music and traditions from Morocco.

–8:30 p.m.: Ma’ariv & Havdallah. Sephardic concert: Vanessa Paloma. Sunday

–8:30 a.m.: services

–9 a.m.: Bagel breakfast. Speaker: Jack Zeller, immediate past president of Kulanu. Topic: Bringing back the lost tribes of Israel. Panel discussion with speakers.

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Copyright (c) 2008, El Paso Times, Texas

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