News Column

Hispanic Jews Celebrate Their first Rosh Hashanah

Sept. 5, 2013

They grew up Catholic, Pentecostal or evangelical, but Wednesday they will be Jews celebrating their first Rosh Hashanah.

"Rosh Hashanah is a new start," said Razielah Jacome Pagan, a retired Kissimmee sales representative and former Assemblies of God member. "You have a Jewish heritage. You are part of a Jewish world because you have a new identity."

To Pagan and many other Hispanics who convert to Judaism, the journey was a search for an identity hidden, covered up and denied for centuries. Through DNA testing, family records and the Internet, they are discovering deep down that they are Jewish.

"What's happening with Latinos is it's within their blood," said Rabbi Gary Fernandez, head of the Synagogue Beth Israel in Sanford. "When you speak with these folks, nine out of 10 will tell you they always had this feeling, something drawing them to Judaism."

In recent years, Rabbi David Kay has seen an increase in Hispanics attending the "Discover Judaism" class at Ohev Shalom in Maitland from a few every year to enough to warrant a second class in Spanish.

"This is a new phenomenon for me, but it's not a new phenomenon worldwide. It's happening all over the place," he said.

Fernandez directs Aliyah Sefarad International, which educates Hispanics on the history and heritage of Sephardic Judaism, a branch that originates in large part from Spain. Since the Sanford-based organization was formed in 2007, he's seen an increase in Hispanics seeking their religious ancestry.

"When we started, it was just a handful of people who would come. Now the place is standing-room only," he said.

For many, their Jewish heritage dates back to the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago when Jews were required to convert to Christianity -- or face certain death. Many adopted the outward appearance of being Catholic while maintaining Jewish customs. They carried that to South America and the Caribbean, attending church while hiding their Jewish roots.

Pagan didn't know of her Jewish ancestry until she discovered that her Puerto Rican grandfather was a Jew from Minorca, a Spanish island in the Mediterranean with a large Jewish population.

"That is where my Jewish soul came from. It was there all the time and I didn't know it," said Pagan, 62.

Yarah Medina, who grew up Catholic, became a Pentecostal preacher before she too learned of her Jewish ancestry. To reconcile her Christian beliefs with her Jewish heritage, she joined an Orlando synagogue headed by Eliezer Sepulveda, a former Baptist minister who became a Messianic rabbi.

For Medina and Sepulveda, Messianic Judaism seemed the ideal blend of Jewish traditions and Christian heritage. They could practice Judaism without giving up Christ as the savior. But instead of having the best of both religions, they found themselves in a spiritual no-man's land: neither completely Christian nor totally Jewish.

"I thought I had the better parts of the two worlds. But it got to the point where it wasn't enough. There was something missing," said Medina, 63, of Kissimmee.

Sepulveda, whose mother was Jewish and father Pentecostal, also became dissatisfied with the "spiritual grafting" of two religions and decided to become fully Jewish. When he announced this to the members of his synagogue, two-thirds of the 60 members left. Medina and Pagan are among those who remained.

Following Sepulveda, about 20 members of his congregation underwent 18 weeks of conversion lessons under Kay. As the Shomer Yisrael congregation, they comprise the first Hispanic Jewish synagogue in Orange County.

And Kay is now working with a second group of Hispanics from Sepulveda's former synagogue who are converting to Judaism.

"The enthusiasm and the passion were great," Kay said. "To be part of the process of bringing a group of people to their spiritual home is just an incredible honor."

On Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the shofar -- traditionally a ram's horn -- in the synagogue summons the faithful. This year, that includes Sepulveda and his followers.

"This is going to be the first time in which we are not spectators looking in from the outside," he said. "We are part of the people of Israel."

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