When the phone rang at the Modesto synagogue office one day in 2013, the congregant who answered was asked a question that momentarily stopped her: Speaking in halting English, the man on the other end was calling to inquire about adult circumcision.
The mystery caller turned out to be part of a group of seven Latino families in the Central Valley who had been studying Torah together for two years. Now they wanted to do more than just learn about Judaism — they wanted to be Jewish.
Thus began the changing tides for Congregation Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue whose members until recently were predominantly white and Ashkenazi. CBS has been around for 100 years, and many members can trace their heritage back to the temple’s founding families.
Membership, though, has been in decline since 2000. Three-plus years ago when the phone call came to the synagogue office, there were only 105 members, and most were not regular shulgoers. Now that several Latino families have joined, they have become some of the most active members of the congregation, according to the rabbi.
“We used to have to call around for help to make minyan most weekends,” said Rabbi Shalom Bochner, who has been the spiritual leader since 2013 and last summer was hired as the synagogue’s rabbi. “But now we never do. At a given Shabbat service, over two-thirds of the [two dozen] congregants in attendance are Latino.”
Being the spiritual center for a community of immigrants is in Congregation Beth Shalom’s DNA — it was established in 1918 by recently arrived Lithuanian Ashkenazi Jews who spoke little English. Two of the founding families, the Zeffs and the Highiets, started in Modesto from scratch, opening a slaughterhouse and a scrap metal business, both enterprises that left their mark on the city. The Highiets’ scrap metal company continues to be a family operation to this day, and on the outskirts of Modesto, ringed by apricot and almond orchards, one can still see signage for Zeff Road peeking out near “slaughterhouse row.”
Over the years, the descendants of these families have been the backbone of the congregation. The current president, Doug Highiet, is a direct descendant of both the Zeff and the Highiet families and works in the family metal business. His grandfather, Alec Highiet, who served three presidential terms, was made an honorary president for life.
“There is a sense of history here that many communities don’t have,” said Bochner. “The institutional memories live directly within the congregants.”
In the last couple of generations, however, many of the children and grandchildren in Modesto’s long-established Jewish community have not returned after college. “So much of my generation has left the area,” said Doug Highiet, who grew up in the city of 200,000. “I had a family business, so I stayed. I was the exception.”
Bochner, 48, who previously was director of Santa Cruz Hillel and director of lifelong learning at Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, describes himself as “primarily Conservative with a twist of Renewal and Chabad.” He and his family split their time between Berkeley and Modesto, only 85 miles in distance but in many ways worlds apart. The rabbi calls Beth Shalom “a lonely outpost of Judaism in this vast expanse of the Central Valley,” with the nearest synagogue some 30 miles away in Stockton, and said it functions as a center for Jewish life in the area with community events throughout the year.
“Being involved with a community means so much more when you don’t have a Saul’s Deli,” said Bochner, referring to the downtown Berkeley institution. “Even if there’s only 20 people who show up on a Saturday morning — they know that if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t be viable.”
In a glass case in the synagogue’s lobby sits a large book inscribed with the dates and details of every bar and bat mitzvah that has taken place in the congregation. Most recent to pen her name in the large omnibus was 12-year-old Andrea Jiminez, who celebrated her bat mitzvah on May 7. She is the daughter of David and Esther Jiminez, one of the three couples who contacted Congregation Beth Shalom in early 2013.
David Jiminez grew up in Mexico, Esther in El Salvador. While neither was raised in a religious environment, they agreed it was important to raise their own family with the structure and values of religion. “I wanted my kids to feel connected to something,” David Jiminez said.
Before finding their way to CBS, the family spent 10 years as active members at a church until they began to question tenets of their Christian faith. After independently studying the early life of Jesus the Jew, David became more and more fascinated with Judaism, coming to believe it was “the true religion.”
The family wanted to learn more, but their options were limited: While CBS was the closest synagogue in the Central Valley, the services were in English and Hebrew, neither of which they knew well. So they joined a Spanish-speaking prayer group that portended to be Jewish but was in fact Messianic. Initially unaware that Messianic Judaism is widely viewed as a form of Christianity, the Jiminezes started noticing similarities between the Messianic character of Yeshua and the Jesus they had left behind. Such deviations from traditional Judaism led the couple, along with several other families, to split off from the prayer group and start their own Jewish study circle, learning about Torah and discussing Jewish texts for the next two years.
“I started going to the Messianic group because they spoke Spanish and said they were the ‘real Jews,’ ” recounts Israel Seja, who was part of the breakaway group. “But after continuing to study with them I realized that they were wrong — that they still prayed to Jesus and weren’t really Jewish, and I had to leave.”
By 2013, three families decided they were ready to push their interest further. That’s when David Jiminez called Beth Shalom.
“The fact that we received this call when we did proves that God puts you where he needs you,” said Andra Greenwald, who at the time was teaching Jewish studies classes at CBS and was delighted to take the new families under her wing. Greenwald received her smicha (ordination) from the Rabbinical Seminary International in 2009 and operates as an independent rabbi. “We were between rabbis at the time, and everyone was pitching in where they could. Not only did I happen to be already leading a weekly conversion class, but I also speak some Spanish.”
Greenwald added a Spanish-language conversion class and for over a year met weekly with the families — 12 students in all — to discuss their journeys to Judaism. Many spoke little to no English. Nearly all were deeply committed to learning Jewish laws and practices, joining the congregation and ultimately converting to Judaism.
The Latino families who have joined CBS share more than just a language — they all speak of the powerful feelings of purpose and connection that Judaism has brought to their lives.
Seja, 42, grew up Catholic in a small town in Mexico and remembers going to church eagerly with his grandmother as a young child. In his late 20s, he began to question his connection to Catholicism. Then about 10 years ago, he read his first book about the Holocaust and felt haunted.
“It was devastating. I felt deep inside of me, these are my people. These atrocities were committed against my people, I am a Jew,” said Seja.
His research led him to the story of the Crypto-Jews, people with Jewish ancestry who had to feign conversion to Catholicism during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition to avoid deportation or worse (Jews were ordered to leave the two countries starting in 1492 — “Conversos” who remained lived under threat of execution if their secret Jewish practices were revealed).
Many Converso families moved to the New World, thinking they would be safe to practice their Judaism there, but the Inquisition followed them to the Americas and continued to be part of public policy in South and Central America until the early 1800s. Because the Inquisition lasted for so many generations, the majority of these “secret” Jews lost knowledge of their heritage.
Seja, who is convinced this is the story of his family, says he can trace many of their surnames back to the historic Iberian Peninsula that was once referred to by its Jewish inhabitants as Sepharad.
In 1981, then-New Mexico state historian Stanley Hordes gained prominence by speculating about the existence of Crypto-Jews in the Southwest after discovering genealogical links between families in the region and descendants of the Inquisition. Many of these families practiced Jewish-like customs in the privacy of their homes.
Since then, the Crypto-Jewish narrative has been debated extensively. Those who support it have pointed to family customs that resemble Jewish rituals, such as lighting candles on Friday night, baking unleavened bread in the spring or placing Stars of David on graves. But skeptics say these ritual anomalies may merely be vestiges of Judeo-Christian practices and argue that genetic testing is inconclusive.
It is hard to find a reliable estimate of the number of Crypto-Jews in the United States, given the malleability of their identity. Scholars and geneticists who study the phenomenon estimate that roughly 10 percent of those with Latino ancestry contain the “Cohanim marker”— a Y chromosome that traces to the Middle East and is often determinant of Jewish heritage. The largest concentrations of Crypto-Jews within the United States are believed to be in New Mexico and Arizona, with some in California, as well.
But the narrative alone has a powerful pull. “I get calls every week, sometimes two or three, from people living in the Central Valley telling me that they just found out they are 45 percent Jewish and want to know what to do,” said Bochner.
“I don’t see these as conversions, but rather as reconnections,” he continued. “What cosmic healing it is, for their ancestors, for them to find their way back to Judaism. Their relationship to Judaism forces us to really think about what it means to have a tribal identity in 2016.”
Samuel De Lemos, a Beth Shalom congregant for five years, believes he has Crypto-Jewish ancestry in his family. He has traced his ancestors’ voyage from Spain to Portugal, through Amsterdam and Germany, and then finally into Guatemala, where he was born into a Catholic family. It wasn’t until his early teenage years that his mother told him, quite matter-of-factly, that he was Jewish.
“She said, you know, we’re Jewish — and that was that, we never really talked about it again,” said De Lemos. “These things are a matter of life and death in Central America. Over here in North America, you can be open. But in Guatemala, this was a family secret. If people found out, they would kill you.”
He remembers his grandmother would clean fastidiously every Friday night and his grandfather would tell them stories from the Old Testament.
When De Lemos got to college, he looked for a Jewish community to join but said he never felt like he fit in. When he was in his mid-30s, he was invited to attend a Sephardic service in Texas, where he found “other Jews who were brown, like me.”
“I cried,” he recalls. “And now it’s beautiful to be here in Modesto and have other people that look like me, with stories like mine, be at temple when I come.”
Shortly after Bochner was hired as CBS rabbi, he realized there was a need for integration within the community. “That first weekend, I got to shul on Saturday morning and noticed that half of the congregants were people of color,” he said. He saw that many were struggling quietly with their English, so he added a weekly Spanish reading to the service and ordered prayerbooks and chumashim (the Torah in printed form) that are transliterated and translated from Spanish to Hebrew.
He also picked up on wariness among longtime congregants about the intentions of the newcomers — and so he invited a guest speaker, Rabbi Yosef Garcia, co-founder of the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas, to address the community. Prior to the lecture, the rabbi spearheaded an outreach Shabbat to facilitate dialogue between older and newer members of the temple, with help from a Spanish-English translator.
“At first we weren’t sure if they were from the Messianic community or what, since we’ve had a few Messianics come to services and try to preach the gospel to us,” said Highiet. “It was helpful to learn the history about these people coming back to find their heritage. And the rabbi has gone over and above to make everyone feel welcome.”
“In the beginning, I would cry after services — it was a big change,” said Rosy Gonzales, 50, who with her husband began coming to services about a year ago. “But this community is so warm, and they said to me, come back next week. And so I have. I never thought that Hispanic people could be Jewish! And now it feels like family.”
That family feeling was evident on May 7 at Andrea Jiminez’s bat mitzvah — the first openly Jewish celebration in her family’s recorded history. The blue-carpeted synagogue was filled with Jews and non-Jews of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Andrea, her mother, Esther Jiminez, and Seja — all of whom have studied Hebrew for a short time — chanted the Torah portion alongside members of the congregation who had celebrated their b’nai mitzvah decades ago.
After Andrea completed her drash (sermon), which she presented first in English and then in Spanish, the congregation threw coconut Chick-O-Sticks at the bimah. After the service, congregants shmoozed over a Kiddush with egg salad and crackers, which was later followed by a family party featuring tacos and molé at Andrea’s cousin’s house.
“The Hebrew prayers provide this beautiful opportunity for connection. Whether or not you can understand the meaning of what you’re saying, you are participating in something that has been happening every day for 3,000 years,” said Bochner. “Here, at synagogue each week, we get to put our differences aside and all sing them together.”
‘Why does it feel like I’m home?’
Rosy and Rudy Gonzales were each raised Christian, and neither has yet journeyed to the mikvah. But Rudy, 51, already considers himself Jewish.
“My grandfather always used to say that he was a religious rebel, and I never understood what that meant,” he said about his possible Crypto-Jewish ancestry. “But now, I know what he meant.”
Rudy said he always felt like he was searching for something. Married to his high school sweetheart, he spent years bouncing from one thing to the next. A few years ago, he separated from Rosy while dealing with a drug addiction and ended up living on the streets in Los Angeles. Then he made a connection that led him to turn his life around.
“There was this guy of the Jewish faith who I used to sit next to while they were giving out food on Skid Row,” said Rudy. “He acted like a real friend, and that really affected me.”
One afternoon, Rudy went into a Jewish bookstore. Something about the books called to him, and he began to read Jewish interpretations of the Old Testament.
“It was the first time that the translations of the Bible made sense,” he said. “I continued to read and read, and somehow everything started to fall in line.”
Soon after, he decided to attend a synagogue service in downtown Los Angeles. On the advice of his Jewish friend, he made sure to follow the folks around him, standing and sitting when they did. The impact of that service was immense.
“I started attending synagogue every weekend, and I was asking myself, why does this feel different? Why does it feel like I’m home?” he muses. “It was just one of those things that you can’t explain.”
Gonzalez continued to attend services for a year while living on Skid Row. As he became more and more connected with Judaism, he felt his life changing. “I was ready to move back, be with my family, be a father,” said Rudy.
Last year, Rudy moved back to Modesto to start over, this time as a Jew. Since his return, he has attended weekly services at Congregation Beth Shalom and is studying with Rabbi Shalom Bochner. “When you know, you know,” says Rudy about his Jewish ancestry. “But best of all — now I have a history to pass down to my children. Now I can tell them who they are.”