There once was a philosopher from Bogota, Columbia who was born to Catholic middle-class parents, received communion, attended Catholic schools, studied with monks, considered becoming a monk, but eventually made his way to Israel and became a rabbi. That story, as Rabbi Juan Mejia has often explained of his journey to Yiddishkeit, is one of family, faith and a desire to serve.
As it’s told, one Christmas, nearly 25 years ago, Mejia’s grandfather revealed to him that his grandfather had been Jewish. “I never made much of it,” said Mejia, in an interview with Peter Svarzbein. “A couple of years later, I ended up traveling to Israel, and that memory really became something tangible and something that I wanted to reconnect with.”
So after arriving in Jerusalem, studying and later enrolling in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Mejia became a spiritual guide for fellow seekers.
A decade has now passed since Mejia received ordination. The years have brought much attention, but while his personal path fetched great interest from Jewish presses, Mejia is more interested in discussing others’ journeys.
These days, he lives in Oklahoma City, with his wife, Abby Jacobson, and their three children. Jacobson is the rabbi of Emanuel Synagogue, a Conservative shul serving the Oklahoma City area. As for him, apart from running two supplemental Hebrew schools, Mejia is the Southwest/Latin America regional director for Be’chol Lashon, an organization that seeks to grow and strengthen the Jewish people “through ethnic, cultural and racial inclusiveness.”
Mejia’s work with Be’chol Lashon tasks him with being the “go-to guy for all things” relating to Latin America and Latino Jews in the United States, he explained. The latter, though small, constitutes a significant component within the national Jewish landscape. As of 2016, Latino Jews represented between 3 percent and 5 percent of the 6.7 million Jews in the United States, reported the American Jewish Committee.
“In America, we have a very strong” idea that the Jewish experience is embodied by “Woody Allen and the Lower East Side narrative,” but what should be realized is that Jewry is “a fun mix, and it’s only getting more and more diverse,” he said.
Accordingly, issues pertaining to the increasing expanse of Jewish peoplehood have been at the forefront of Mejia’s most recent concerns. As the Columbian-born converted rabbi who, apart from serving as a local Oklahoman Jewish educator, operates largely online by teaching, counseling and performing other rabbinic responsibilities, Mejia’s reach crosses borders, boundaries and demographics.
Several weeks ago, to mark the start of Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashanah, Mejia began live-streaming Selichot. With audiences in Mexico, Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela, viewers behind more than 80 computers clicked in. That number is staggering, he said, as “I don’t know of any Conservative shul that gets 82 people for Selichot.”
While the diversity of locale is noteworthy, so too are his subscribers, as many are, in fact, not Jewish. It is a reality that is inherently fraught with complications, he explained.
“We are pumping out all of this great material, and people are falling in love with Judaism, but we still haven’t decided what to do with these people or how to make them a part of the community.”
Finding a place within the faith is a challenge for Mejia and his seekers.
“As a rabbi, I struggle with what is right in the eyes of the Torah and the moral imperative of these people to choose Judaism,” he said. “If I converted everyone who reached out, or even a fragment, I would be accused of mass conversion and proselytism. On the other hand, if I do it, how am I going to include them in the Jewish world? How can I get them to integrate? I don’t want them to be alone. Their Judaism isn’t viable if they are alone.”
Denominational differences regarding requirements, the impetuses of the parties involved and the realities of embracing newcomers have rendered conversion a largely “dysfunctional” process, he said.
“What keeps me up at night is yes, I want to make this available to whoever has a sincere Jewish interest, but on the other hand, with the community and the way it works now, it’s sometimes not safe, and that’s what limits me,” he said.
For many of Mejia’s students, Judaism can be extremely isolating. In most cases, “the places they live have no synagogue. They have to create their synagogue.” And even if houses of worship are erected, the surroundings are not always ideal. Those adopting Jewish practices are often “thought of as demons” by their neighbors, he said.
“It’s heartbreaking because I see a lot of great people who say, ‘Can you help me?’” said Mejia. “And I say, ‘I can’t help you, you are the only one in your town who is interested in this. Either you have to move or you have to live Judaism online.’ [The situation is] frustrating but also an interesting juncture of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish religion.”
In many ways, it mirrors life in Oklahoma City.
“Every single kid in my school is the only Jewish kid in their public school.” For these kids, and those invested in their spiritual growth, the “existential stakes” are “so much higher,” Mejia said.
Maintaining a Jewish identity in Oklahoma City, or in an emergent community in Latin America, is unlike anywhere with a “critical mass” of Jews who at the least can frequent a deli for their cultural fix, Mejia said.
“Most people who meet me or my wife have never met another Jew in their life,” he said. “Our reality is more akin to your great-grandfather’s synagogue. Back then, when tiny Jewish communities speckled the United States, they often came in the form of a small building that was usually rented with one Torah, maybe two Torahs, maybe no Torahs. The community was struggling to get a school. The parents [were] the teachers. The guy who reads the Torah is also the guy who is painting the synagogue. If you were to do a straw poll of Jewish communities throughout the world in the 19th century or early 20th century, they would look more like my community in Oklahoma or my communities in Latin America.
“The way that we are practicing now, I call this vintage Judaism. We are doing things 19th- century style, not because we want to, but because we have to.”
While inspiring to some, Mejia’s efforts are also met with derision, he said.
“It’s frustrating to me that I get criticism that these communities can’t survive.” Nevertheless, the philosopher with historical perspective elects clairvoyance.
“Well, your great-grandfather’s synagogue survived,” he said. “We are here. We are taking this amazing tool box and we are using it in the same way” that they did generations ago.
“What we are having now is an unprecedented phenomenon in a change in technology. Rabbis and Jews and Jewish organizations are putting out this great material,” he added.
And the materials are being read globally.
“Ask Rabbi Seth [Adelson, of Pittsburgh’s Congregation Beth Shalom]. Ask him where he is being read.”
Adelson, who maintains the site themodernrabbi.com and has blogged for more than five years, said that he gets “hits from all over the world,” including India, China, Russia, the Philippines, Iran “and other Arab countries, places you wouldn’t think. And I am aware of the fact that there are people who, for whatever reason, are tuning into the Jewish offerings that are available online, people who might not have any knowledge or information about Judaism.”
“This Jewish message is resonating in surprising and unexpected ways and in surprising and unexpected places,” said Mejia.
Adelson agreed: “We’re living in a really interesting time when, with the freedom of information, just about anybody can discover that what Judaism offers is especially rich and inspiring.”
“I think the tipping point has started,” said Mejia. “I am very blessed to do the work that I can do.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.