Synagogue en español
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 2, 2006

Valeria Fernández

Rabbi Yosef Garcia is the spiritual leader of a Chandler group that gathers each week in Garcia's home synagogue that carries

When Rabbi Yosef Garcia arrived in Chandler last August from Portland, Ore., he found a community of Latino Jews eager to practice their faith in Spanish.

For the past five months, each Saturday, or Shabbat - the day observant Jews rest and give thanks to God - the Garcias' home has turned into a synagogue.

A large line of shoes decorates the entrance, evidence of a procession of visitors who come and go during the service, which is offered in Spanish, English and Hebrew.

"It wasn't two weeks since we arrived and they kept on coming," says Yvonne Garcia, Garcia's wife.

She graciously receives the guests as they arrive without interrupting the ongoing liturgy. Then she extends a kipa to the men, a round-shaped hat that fits tight on the head, while she signals to the women to sit in the back.
Normally, women sit to the left of the men, but here there is not enough room.

For some, this is one of their first experiences inside a synagogue. For others, it is a continuation of a faith they brought from their countries of origin.

Garcia is the spiritual leader of the Chandler group that gathers at least 40 people a week. Here he founded his synagogue out of his home under the name "Avdey Torah Hayah," which means "Servants of the Living Torah."

Garcia, a native of Panama, was ordained by two rabbis and has been a rabbi for 11 years.

In Portland, he managed to gather a group of at least 250 Latino Jews, the majority migrant farm workers who arrived during harvest season, Garcia said.

Ezequiel Garcia, 42, stares proudly as his 12-year-old son, Isai, recites passages from the Torah.

The Garcias - not related to Rabbi Garcia - are natives of Hidalgo, Mexico, and grew up as Seventh-day Adventists. They began to explore Judaism early in their lives after they discovered they carried some of its traditions in their family without knowing.

During New Year's, 47-year-old Anabel, one of Ezequiel's sisters, displays an arrangement of lights with the Star of David in the front of her house.
On Friday evening, she lights a candle and thanks God for allowing her to be part of another Shabbat.

In her home she may cook the traditional Mexican tamales, or consume products labeled as kosher, prepared following certain Jewish rituals. The cultural experience of the family varies like the melodies in the home, ranging from cumbia, salsa and Hebrew music.

A place to worship
Normally, Hispanic Jews integrate themselves into local synagogues because there is no specific Latino congregation in the Valley, he said.

One of the few temples that offer services in Spanish is Temple Beth Sholom in Chandler, which gathers at least 20 Latinos from Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Cuba. Many of those same people also have attended Garcia's services.

Garcia, however, isn't affiliated with Temple Beth Sholom, which is why he holds services at his home.

A synagogue "is not a sacred place," it is the moment and the reunion of the people to express their faith that make the place holy, according to Rabbi Mark Bisman, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.

Ramón Carrasco, a Latino member of the Valley's Jewish community who was involved in bringing Garcia to Arizona, said the influx of newly arrived immigrants who speak Spanish created a need to find a rabbi who could perform rituals and officiate ceremonies like bar mitzvahs in Spanish, as well as relate to them culturally.

There aren't good figures about how many Latino Jews live in the United States.

According to data from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, there are a half-million Jews in Latin America.

Based on that, there could be about 100,000 in the United States, said Dina Siegel Vann, director of Latino and Latin American Affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Garcia argues that number could be much higher if people who identify themselves as "crypto-Jews" were counted.

Jews in secret
Crypto-Jews, or Jews in secret, are a people who have rediscovered a bond
with Judaism that dates 500 years to the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

Like a majority of Latin Americans, Garcia grew up in a Catholic family. But
when he was 35, a great uncle revealed to him a family secret that changed
his life. For generations his family hid its Jewish roots, a fear that dated
to the Inquisition, a time when Spain attempted to convert the world to

His experience of finding a hidden history moved him deeply. Today, he
aspires to the recognition of the Jewish-Hispanic so they would be
acknowledged as Jewish.

"It's the reason why I am here in the United States," he said.

Garcia maintains that crypto-Jews don't have to convert to Judaism because
they have an inherent right to be Jewish.

But his ideas are controversial.

"In the majority of the rabbi organizations, unless you can verify in
several generations that the mother is Jewish-born, the person won't be
recognized," Bisman said. "If the person has a Jewish father but not a
Jewish mother, then they have to convert."

Bisman has no doubt some Latinos have Jewish ancestors, but verifying it is
the task of a historian.

Crypto-Judaism is not a movement or something new, according to Professor
Stanley Hordes, an expert on the subject from the Latin American and Iberian
Institute of the University of New Mexico.

Toward the end of the 15th century, thousands of Sephardic Jewish, who trace
their roots to the Iberian Peninsula, escaped "to the end of the world,"
running away from the Inquisition, Hordes said.

Many arrived in Mexico to practice their faith freely, but the Inquisition
followed them even to the New World, pushing them farther into the northern
border in places now known as New Mexico and Arizona, he said.

Many kept their traditions in secret while assuming a Catholic identity.

Hordes said he has conducted thousands of interviews with some of the
families who can still trace their roots to Judaism, but not all had
interest in reconnecting.