In California farming town, a Latino congregation commits to Judaism
LOS ANGELES — Located in the northern part of Santa Barbara County, but as distant from chic Santa Barbara as one can imagine, Santa Maria is a blue-collar town dotted with fast-food and barbecue joints. In recent years its population, at least half of which is Latino, has mushroomed to 100,000 fueled by agribusiness — including vineyards and wineries — and the city’s other growing industries.
On a Friday afternoon, the local radio stations play mostly Christian music or gospel chants in English and Spanish. The city’s main drags are lined with churches of all denominations.
But one church in particular stands out. Out front, a large banner reads in all capital letters Congregacion Beth Shalom. The spelling of Congregacion isn’t a mistake; it’s Spanish.
Edgar de la Pena, 36, a Mexican-born graphic artist who grew up in Santa Maria, is the founder and leader of Beth Shalom, a devout community with a dozen families — approximately 60 people — including many children.
On Shabbat and Jewish holidays, as well as other occasions, they gather in the sanctuary and meeting hall they rent from the church or at people’s homes. Though fairly new to the religion, they worship, study and live their Judaism wholeheartedly, and they do it communally.
Like many Latinos who were raised Christian and later became Jews by choice, de la Pena has family memories that connect him to Judaism.
He recalls that at 7 years old, while still living in Michoacan, Mexico, he traveled to Jalisco to see relatives. He and his family arrived on a Friday. Before sundown, his grandmother told him to put on good clothes and turn off the TV. The table for Friday night dinner was set elegantly, and the family didn’t go out in the public square until after sundown on Saturday evening.
At 11, de la Pena’s family moved to the United States, settling in Santa Maria, and he attended a Pentecostal church. While still a teen, he married his high school sweetheart, Irene — of Filipino background — and they had children soon thereafter. In his early 20s, already a father of two young daughters, de la Pena became a lay minister in his church.
“But as I began to search the Bible for its essential meaning,” de la Pena said, “I felt more and more that I wasn’t getting what I needed from the church, what I needed spiritually. I felt I was being told what to think and not to question things.”
De la Pena heard some in the church speak badly of Judaism. “So on my own, I started to study Torah,” he said.
He visited a synagogue and heard a sound that struck him at his core: the blowing of a shofar. The bleating of the ram’s horn not only moved him deeply, it also brought back other memories of his grandmother — and of certain behaviors he suddenly realized were based on family traditions that indicated possible Jewish roots.
If he did, indeed, have Jewish ancestors, de la Pena was determined to learn what the religion meant, so he became more and more involved with Judaism.
“I put Jewish holy objects in my house — a menorah, holiday decorations,” he said. “I stopped eating pork. I started to light candles on Friday night. I was still in the Pentecostal church at the time, so there were those in the church that made my life miserable.”
Finally, de la Pena wrote a letter to the elders telling them that he wanted to leave the church for good. In response, some threw eggs at his home, secretly fed his kids sandwiches with pork and prohibited their children from playing with his children. De la Pena apologized to his family for what they had to endure, but he felt he had to stop hiding who he was.
Once he was away from the Pentecostal church, de la Pena became involved with Messianic Judaism, a growing movement whose adherents observe elements of Judaism: They pray in Hebrew, observe Shabbat, maintain kashrut, adore Israel and celebrate Jewish holidays. But they also venerate Yeshua — Jesus Christ. Messianic Judaism, especially when practiced by Latinos, seems to grow out of a desire to live the life that Yeshua and his disciples lived, which was that of observant Jews.
De la Pena is very much aware that others might suspect his group of being Messianic Jews. He says emphatically they are not.
“We passed through a period with Messianic Judaism and realized it was not what we were looking for,” he said. “Once I began studying Judaism seriously, I realized that it’s very different — and a lot more — than the Judaism presented by the Messianic Jewish groups.”
The next step for de la Pena was to attend what at the time was the one shul in Santa Maria, a Reform congregation.
“These people are also Children of Israel,” the rabbi told the congregants.
Nevertheless, de la Pena and those with him felt uncomfortable, largely because the service was in English.
Eventually, with the support of his family and friends, de la Pena founded the Beth Shalom minyan. The congregation is far from wealthy, but all the families contribute.
Spanish-speaking Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, who officiates at Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier, occasionally visits Santa Maria and offers guidance to those in the community who have embarked on the conversion process. Mehlman says the group’s members “come from an observant [Christian] tradition,” which may account for — in Mehlman’s words — their “genuine spiritual yearnings.”
On Friday nights, the Beth Shalom community gathers for Shabbat services. De la Pena’s oldest daughter, 17-year-old Erandy, chants the biblical portions — in Hebrew — with skill and beauty. It’s hard to listen to Erandy, to experience the community’s earnestness, and not be touched.
Mehlman is moved by the group, too.
“They’re thoroughly committed to their Judaism,” the rabbi said. “The amount they invest in their religious institution, proportionally, is astounding. They do everything possible to create a comfortable home for themselves as Jews, which is hard to do in a place like Santa Maria.”
Mehlman listened as Erandy chanted.
“Amazing, isn’t she? Her father’s Mexican, her mother’s Filipina … and she’s 100 percent Jewish,” he said. “It brings up the question, what do Jews look like?”
Mehlman opened his arms, palms up, indicating the entire Beth Shalom community.
“The answer is, they look like this,” he said.