Dan Libenson: This is Judaism Unbound: Episode 57—Becoming Jewish on the Web.
Dan Libenson: Welcome back, everyone. I'm Dan Libenson . . .
Lex Rofes: . . . and I'm Lex Rofes.
Dan Libenson: And we're here today with a fascinating guest. Rabbi Juan Mejia is rabbi-in-residence for Be’chol Lashon—that’s an organization, remember from back in December, when we interviewed Ruth Abusch-Magder, who also works there—it’s an organization that “grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness.” They’re really focused on Jewish diversity, and Juan is an exemplar of Jewish diversity in his own life. We’re going to get into his story in of all its fascinating detail, but suffice it to say he grew up Catholic in Colombia (the country) and eventually converted to Judaism and became a rabbi. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary—that’s the Conservative Movement—in 2009, and Juan is an activist and educator on behalf of emergent communities in Latin America, which are communities of people who have embraced Judaism and want to join the Jewish people. He lives in Oklahoma City with his spouse and three children, and we’re thrilled to have him with us today on Judaism Unbound. Juan, welcome. Thanks for being with us.
Juan Mejia: Thanks, Dan. Thanks, Lex.
Dan Libenson: So, I think that the best place to get started, really, is for you to tell a little bit about your story, because I think it's a relatively uncommon one, and I think an extremely interesting and important one.
Juan Mejia: So, I was born in Colombia 39 years ago to a middle-class Catholic family. My father’s a doctor, my mother was an artist. And I grew up with the benefits of that class in a Latin American country, which is usually private school. In my case, it was an elite private Catholic School run by American monks. So, it's a Catholic school . . . and I always was very spiritually curious—for a while I even considered a Catholic vocation.
But when I was 15 years old I discovered that the family—my father’s family—had Jewish origins, and . . . very distant, like going back to Spain, but some measure of it had survived until the latest generations. My grandfather remembered that his grandfather self-identified as a Jew and had some odd practices that he really couldn't explain. And that really got me into a path of curiosity.
I reached out. I started to read about Jewish history, about Sephardic history that is the story of the Jews of Spain, where my family apparently came from. And when I graduated high school, I started studying philosophy at the National University of Colombia, and that gave me exposure to Maimonides and Spinoza and Hermann Cohen, and the wealth of Jewish philosophical tradition, which only deepened my interest.
And in 1998 I took a little break from college and started traveling through Europe, and ended up spending between two to three months in Israel. And for me it was a great revelation, because in Colombia—and it's very different from America—there's very little Jewish visibility and culture. There's no Yiddish in the television, there's no Hanukkah portrayed in the local series. People know that that building with the copper dome is a synagogue, but there's no representation in outside culture. There's about 3,000 to 5,000 Jews in the entire country of 40 million. And seeing Jewish life in Israel really being lived as a vibrant culture—religious and linguistic—was a game-changer and really led me to a lot of soul-searching.
When I returned to Colombia I started to research Judaism quite diligently, and in the end I said, “This is my spiritual home. This is the wisdom that I can really get behind. This is a way of life that I could endorse. It pleases my reason, it connects to my heart.” And, back then it was much more important, “It connects to my own personal family history.”
So, I decided to convert to Judaism when I was about 19 . . . 20 years old. And that's when a lot of the challenges that I am now addressing as a rabbi started to manifest. In such a culture, where Jews are not participating so openly in the national discourse, in a place with a security situation as complicated as Colombia—most Latin American countries have similar issues of urban violence and kidnappings—the Jewish community is not very open towards outsiders. So, I had to develop my own Jewish observance and my own Jewish life kind of on the margins of the community. Very different from America, it's very hard for an outsider, for example, to enter a synagogue and see a Jewish worship service. So, I had to do it kind of on my own, and find other like-minded people, both Jewish and seekers, who would lend me books, who would allow me to participate in their Passover Seders. And I realized that that was kind of an untenable situation if I really wanted to make this a part of my life.
So, when I finished college I decided to do my Master’s Degree work in a place where conversion was a thing. And there were only two places where that was a possibility. One was America and the other was Israel. And I applied to American and Israeli universities, and the first place that actually gave me a positive answer was the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. So, I did a Master’s Degree in Jewish Civilization and was able to attend services and go to classes, see what a yeshiva looks from the inside.
I did my conversion, enrolled in the Conservative Yeshiva, which is a center for lay leader Torah development in Jerusalem. There I met my wife, who's from America, and that is kind of like the first chapter of my Jewish story. I never expected to become a rabbi. I wanted to keep working in academia—very devoted to philosophy, especially Jewish philosophy—but something kind of woke me up from that complacency and led me to the work that I do now as a rabbi.
Dan Libenson: How did you get from the Master’s Degree at Hebrew University to becoming a Conservative-ordained rabbi?
Juan Mejia: So, this is all because of my landlady. When I married my wife, we decided to stay in the Conservative Yeshiva for another year of learning—not very different from the philosophical life. And we rented a little apartment in Katamon, and my landlady was American. So, I go to pay my rent, and she sits me down, she gives me tea.
The opening question is, “How come your English is so good? You don’t sound Colombian.”
“Oh, I went to this elite Catholic school, taught us English—monks from North Dakota.”
She said, “Really? How come a nice Jewish boy like you went to Catholic school?”
And I tell her I was not always Jewish. So, I tell her my story, and she says, “That's a really good story. I want to interview you.” And she does this interview for the Sokhnut—for the Jewish Agency—kind of a PR piece. They feature students in different academic institutions in Israel in the yeshivot.
And the next month that I go to pay my rent, she says, “I got some emails for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You got fan mail.”
This is because these stories, since they go on the website of the Sokhnut, are published in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. So, my story about finding my Jewish roots and going back to them and engaging in Torah learning in Jerusalem apparently hit the internet pretty hard in Latin America.
And the emails that I was being forwarded were all the same, like:
“My name is Mario, I like to be called Moshe, I love Torah, I love Israel, I love the Jewish people. But I'm in Guatemala, nobody gives me the time of day.”
“My name is Maria, my ancestors lit candles in the closet, and I really want to come back to my ancestral knowledge, but I live in a place with no Jews.”
Those were the two scenarios that would repeat themselves. Either people were in complete isolation— “I'm living in the middle of a little town up in the Andes in Peru, and there's no Jews, I can't learn, I can't go to a community.” Or, actually the more common case, where you would have people from the big cities with access to the internet—access to internet ten years ago is not what it is today—people who are a little bit learned, who could find the website of the Jewish Agency and find the story, said, “Look, I am really interested in Judaism,” either because “I just love it, I think it's true, I think it's beautiful,” or “I think my ancestors were Jewish, and I can't get the local Jewish community to engage with me.”
And my wife, who is a very, very smart rabbi—but she wasn’t a rabbi back then—she said, “Look, we've studied Pirkei Avot together,”—we've studied The Ethics of the Fathers—“and ‘In a place where there is no mensch, you be the mensch.’ ‘In a place where is not a man, you be that man.’” It's a great saying from Hillel—the Hillel, from the Mishna. And I really took that to heart. She said, “Look, this is a rabbinic problem—the communities, the rabbis down there can't or won't engage with these people, so you become the rabbi that engages with them, and you can get your Ph.D. in Rambam [Maimonides] later in life, but right now I think there's this calling for you to be a liaison between the established Jewish mainstream and this periphery that is being created by the web.”
And it's really . . . I cannot stress enough how much of this spiritual revolution is being web-based. When I decided that I had a real deep interest in Judaism, I went to my university’s library, and I checked out all the books they had on Judaism. This is the biggest university library in Colombia, the largest university in my country, and they had seven books about Judaism. And it was only through the internet, which was then in its infancy—we're talking late ‘90s—that I was able to, kind of, live Judaism on my own, which is what I had to do while I was still in Colombia. It was all web-based.
And right now this is what is creating, I think, both this interest in Judaism—people find Judaism on the web. It's creating resources for them to learn. But most importantly, also the internet is allowing these lonely people to find community, whether it is virtually—and I still have people in the middle of the Andes whose Judaism is exclusively, kind of, lived online—or through Facebook, through Yahoo! Groups, through whatever tool they have, they find other like-minded people in their proximity, and they create communities.
I have a running map of communities—what I call emergent communities in Latin America. I have about 100 communities documented. Every single one of those started online. The internet is a key player on what is happening with conversion, in general, and conversion to Judaism, in particular. Because it's not just conversion to Judaism. Religious migration is one of the key elements of contemporary spirituality. The Pew report of a couple of years ago says that 50% of Americans die in a different religion or denomination than the one that they were born into—one in two.
Latin America’s always a little behind the curve in social and spiritual phenomena. But I see it in my own graduating class. I keep in touch with my high school classmates. There's 108 of us. And I see who has become evangelical, and I see who has become secular—like atheist, like militantly secular. I know who's dabbling in Buddhism and in transcendental meditation. And there's me, and there's another guy who's now also saying, “Maybe this is a path for me.” Conversion to Islam is also on the rise, to Buddhism, to Hinduism.
Can the Jewish community reach out to these people who are seeking from the outside?
Dan Libenson: Juan, that is so fascinating. We have a million questions to ask you after that. But just to sort of put a bow on your story, can you just tell us, when did you graduate from JTS and what did you do after graduation? Basically, what are you doing now exactly?
Juan Mejia: So, I was ordained in 2009. My wife went to school with me. She was ordained 20 seconds before I was, so she is my senior, and I need to listen to everything she says. It's alphabetical. She's Jacobson, I'm Mejia—there's only so much we can do. And then she got the job at the Oklahoma City community. So, we moved here in 2009. I've been helping at the synagogue, I'm now the education director in her synagogue, but I've also been engaged since then at nights, during the weekends, during the summers, in this outreach work, which I do through Be’chol Lashon, mostly online, but I also travel quite a lot to these communities, visit them, bring them rabbinic services. So that is what I've been doing for the past eight years.
Dan Libenson: Can you just say a little more—who are these folks that are reaching you, what is it that they're trying to achieve, and then what do you do for them?
Juan Mejia: I think the conversation has changed a little bit. In the beginning, in 2009, 2008, there was overwhelmingly people who thought they had Jewish roots. It's what's called anusim—other names for that is marranos (although that's a derogatory term), conversos. That was kind of like the hot narrative for these communities in Latin America when I was ordained and at the beginning of my work.
How did they find me? They found me online. I had a piece written about me in Ha’aretz. I had a piece written about me in the Jewish Week, in one of the Latino Jewish newspapers in Uruguay. And when you put “rabbi”, “marrano,” and “anusim,” my name would come up.
So, I opened up a website in 2009 to teach Torah, said “I'm going to be teaching parashat hashavua [the weekly portion of the Torah read in synagogues on Shabbat] and Mishna. I'm a rabbinical student. And this is going to be in Spanish.” Because I saw that there was a need. There's great Torah learning in English. A lot of these people have decent English, they can access this Torah, but for people who don’t have the linguistic ability, there is a huge handicap.
So, my goal then—and it's I think it’s the only goal that I have continued to uphold from my early rabbinate—was I want to create good Torah in Spanish, that's out there and that's available and that's accessible, and that also takes into account the reality where people are.
A lot of the Torah that gets put online is put there kind of from the perspective of the community that produces it. What am I saying? If I'm a rabbi in Long Island, and I have a blog, who is my expected audience? The people in Long Island that are my congregants, and if I'm a little bit more entrepreneurial, maybe I want to take this nationally. Same thing with stuff in Spanish. The main centers of Torah-teaching Spanish Jews are, on one hand, Argentina, and on the other hand, Mexico, and Jerusalem—mostly coming from the Orthodox world, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox world, and reflecting these values.
What I saw a need for was: I need a Torah that is able to speak to people who don’t have access to a synagogue, who don’t have access to Jewish institutions. It's not just that I am teaching in Spanish, but I'm always cognizant of this do-it-yourself kind of aspect of the Torah that they need to embody, if they are going to eventually become Jews and join the Jewish people.
I had this great conversation in 2007 with one of my early students—a guy who was from Colombia—so, I'm texting with this guy motzei Shabbat [on Saturday night, after the end of Shabbat], I was [texting], “Shavua tov [wishes for a good week ahead], how was Shabbat?”
He said, “Oh, Shabbat was terrible.”
“What do you mean Shabbat was terrible?”
The president of the little havurah [prayer group] that this guy went to in a city in Colombia took the siddur [prayer book].
“What do you mean the siddur?”
“Yeah, we only have one.”
“What do you mean you only have one? It's ridiculous. I can send you a box of full of siddurim. I work at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary—I have tons of stuff that is going to get genizahed otherwise”—is going to get put in the closet [for books of sacred writings that are no longer being used but cannot be thrown away or destroyed under Jewish law because they contain the name of God].
He said, “Yeah, you know what, that’s great, thank you for your offer, but the book that you're offering me—it's in Hebrew. We don’t read Hebrew yet. The translation’s in English, which doesn’t help us, and it's Ashkenazi [using the approach of Jews with Eastern European origins], and we're a Sephardic congregation [using the approach of Jewish with Spanish origins].”
I go, “Oy! What do I need to do?” So, the first idea, that gave me the root that I've been developing for the past decade, is I needed to create a siddur that was in Spanish, with transliteration, that followed the Sephardic tradition, and that could go anywhere.
So, for the next year and a half, I developed the siddur that I decided to call Kol Tuv Sefarad (all the wealth, or the goodness, of Spain. I thought it was a cute name, and I created a PDF of a siddur—transliterated, translated, commented Sephardic siddur for Friday night, because that was the service that I saw that most of these emerging havurut [prayer groups] were really focused on. And I posted it online, and I said, “You are free to download it, you are free to make as many copies as you want. Just don’t change it, and don’t sell it.”
And through that, people started to reach out, said, “We love the siddur, thank you, it really helped us out.” And people started saying, “We really want to learn with you.” So, I started teaching—every Sunday—basic Judaism, and more people started to come. Once you have social . . . social media started to kick in 2008, 2009, the word spreads, and I create a group of people who are regularly studying with me.
And among those people, there was a group from a city in Colombia by the beach in Santa Marta. They said, “We really love your Torah, we really think that you are the rabbi for us. Would you work with us for conversion?”
And I said, “I don't know. So, rabbinical school . . . I don't know how to do this, this has never been done. Let's wait a little bit.”
So, I learned more with them, and then I was visiting my father, who was still alive back then, and I went to Colombia, and then I went and visited them, and we spent a week together with these people, and I saw how they lived, and I fell in love with them, and I said, “You guys are awesome. You guys been . . . .” They'd been doing Jewish on their own for six, seven years before I got to them.
So I said, “I really want to guide you in this process.” So again, we started studying for conversion with this pilot community in Santa Marta, and after two years and a half of learning every week for two, three, four, five hours sometimes, I thought “you are ready.” Why is it taking so long? Because this is do-it-yourself Judaism. These people don’t have an established synagogue where there's printed siddurim. Nobody knows how to lead the prayers. So, we have really to take it from zero and give these people the tools to be autonomous, even though they still have my guidance, but my guidance is always remote. So, they need a level of autonomy that most Jewish communities that have been started and developed—these brick and mortar communities—don’t have.
So, that really set the pattern for the work I do. I only work with four small havurot, and I really can't do more than that because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. But the outside rim of the work, which is the Torah that I'm creating in Spanish, and also the networking . . . .
A lot of people say, “Look, we really enjoy your classes, but we really want to be Orthodox, and you're not an Orthodox rabbi.”
I say, “I understand that. I am very cognizant that I'm not an Orthodox rabbi—I will try to put you in touch with a rabbi who might help you.”
Or on the other hand, “We really like your parashat hashavua, but we're really Reform.”
“Okay, I'll put you in touch with a colleague who I trust can help you down that path.”
Lex Rofes: It seems like there's a general theme to you that I'd love to unpack a little more. You break barriers. So, you've spoken about linguistic barriers, you've spoken about communal barriers . . . . Llinguistic barriers—people who literally can't enter into a text because of the language it's written in, can't listen to a text. Communal barriers—people who can't enter into a particular space because they are seen as an outside in that community. And also geographic barriers—people who are located in places that just don’t have access, so you've entered into a digital forum where you can overcome that barrier.
And I want to sort of hold that and hone in on that piece for a second, and ask—we've seen those barriers . . . what other barriers might there be or have there been in your work that has proved challenging? Have there been folks resistant to the kinds of conversions that you help perform? You mentioned a resistance to work online—I'd love to hear more about that, because I get the sense that there are even more barriers that you're helping to overcome than those that have come up so far.
Juan Mejia: Quite so. Long distance training for conversion is a hot topic. The rabbinic establishment across the movements is not really comfortable with it. It has taken me about a decade to convince colleagues, look, this work can be done. It is ripe with blessing. It's also very . . . it's tricky. The borders, the periphery, the frontier is always dangerous. Right?
In the Wild West you had, for every Lone Ranger that was doing good, you had twenty mustachioed bad guys. So, in the periphery things get fuzzy, and since we're doing things that are new, we don't have the benefit of experience. So, there's been resistance. I think that resistance is eroding.
Once the internet becomes more pervasive and the leadership of the Jewish mainstream is Gen Xers and Millennials and people for whom the internet is not a secret and it's a neutral tool—it's actually more than a tool, it's kind of like our natural environment—so, it becomes easier to persuade people, look, you can have deep spiritual connections online.
There's limitations, but, look, I've visited people in the hospital through WhatsApp. WhatsApp is what they use in Latin America. Here in America, it's FaceTime. While people are dying, I've said viddui [the Jewish confession prayer before death] with people who are dying in the hospital through FaceTime. There's not a rabbi within 1,000 miles—I'm their rabbi, they're dying. I'm FaceTiming, and I'm saying viddui with you, and I'm holding your hand through the web, and I'm crying and they're crying, and it's not less of a spiritual relationship.
Another barrier has been, really, the definition of what a Jewish community is. And I think this came to . . . the best example I have is very recent: At the beginning of this year, I was helping one of my communities in Venezuela—wonderful people, I've been working with them since 2011. They converted in 2014. Soon after that, they managed to gain access to one of the established communities in Venezuela. They did not have to do, like, their own living room havurah anymore, although that was their natural option—saying, “This is what we're going to do, we're going to do Jewish together.” They got an opportunity to go to one of the regular synagogues. They went. And then things in Venezuela got really, really bad, and they decided, “You know what, I'm sick of my kid only eating one meal a day—I want to make aliyah [move to Israel].”
And the Ministry of Interior [of Israel] said, “No, you can't make aliyah.” Why—what was the reason that the Ministry of Interior adduced? It said, “You did not convert in an established community.” So, there's no problem with the rabbi, because rabbis, in the Diaspora—all the denominations can do conversions and have their converts make aliyah. It was not that the process was wrong. The Ministry of Interior said, “You're Jewish. But your framework was wrong. The framework is that you should convert in a place that was already Jewish.”
But that is a framework that is very quickly becoming obsolete. People outside of the analog web of relationships of the established Jewish communities are going to find our message compelling. We have the most beautiful example—the community in Uganda. My rebbe [rabbinic master] and one of my colleagues, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu . . . the entire community converted in 2000. They have a yeshiva, six synagogues, a hospital. Through their actions, they have reduced the deaths of malaria in that area from 2,000 to zero—kiddush hashem, sanctifying God’s name, sanctifying the name of the Jewish people.
Beautiful community. And only at the beginning of this year, did the Israeli government give full confirmation that they are a recognized Jewish community. So, the issues of recognition and who has the authority to declare that this community belongs to the Jewish people is something that is still in flux. But it is a conversation that we need to have, and Judaism is resonating in places that we don’t imagine, and in places that we can't control.
And the third barrier, which is, I think it's the most fascinating part of the work, is the barrier of ethnicity. Because—and this is what fueled the great shift in my work:
In the beginning I was really focused on anusim, on the descendants of people who were forced to convert in Spain. And while I was doing some fieldwork and getting to meet the people, I realized that most of the people that I was working with were just taking this as a kind of an identity marker, something to give their Jewish narrative a hint of authenticity, to justify it to themselves, and that, on the other hand, it was also bringing in a lot of baggage, because the story of the anusim, the story of the Spanish Inquisition, of the exile from Spain, is a very painful one. And I was seeing that people were getting stuck in the pain, and I sat down and I had a real, like . . . do I really care if these people are descended from Jews from Spain? If I could just turn back the clock to 1491, am I doing these people a favor? Like, they're not living in Spain anymore, they're living in Latin America. Should their Judaism just be focused on the past, or should it be reaching out towards the future?
And what came out of that inner conversation was that I really didn’t care if people were descended or not from Jews, that the ethnic component, if there is—and there's many cases in which, indeed, people are descended from anusim—is so distant that it's not affecting people’s lives, and that I don't want them to be carrying this pain. What I want to do in Latin America is create a Judaism that is post-ethnic, in the sense that it's not Ashkenazi and it's not Sephardi; it's Mexican, it's Columbian. These people are taking the tools of Torah, the tools of Judaism, and retooling it and creating a Judaism that fits them, but that is not connected to any particular ethnic model.
Lex Rofes: You've used the pronoun “we” a great deal, and you've also occasionally used the pronoun “they.” What's clear to me is that the work you're doing—that you in particular are doing—as far as I can tell, could not be achieved by somebody who had not experienced . . . who was not from a cultural context where you shared an understanding and familiarity with a set of issues that certainly are not universal to all Jews in South America or Central America or . . . but that you have enough of that framing to do that work; and it connects to a theme we've touched on in our podcast in the past, which is that people seem to be most driven and most successful to succeed when they're focusing on problems that they themselves had.
I mean, you spoke about your own struggles as a young man with spirituality, and now you've come to a place where you are, in an incredibly inspiring way, helping people have a mentor, a guide on some of those same struggles that you did not have somebody to guide you with. So, I wanted to flag that.
And also, just in terms of bringing the conversation a little bit full circle, to what extent do you think your work really does come from a deeply personal place of your own history and your own life experience? And to what extent might it not?
Juan Mejia: I suffered lack of access to Judaism when I started in my quest to find a spiritual home for me. And I was blessed that, although I found limitations, I also had the tools—i.e., I could read English, I had the academic credentials that allowed me to get into Israel through, like, an academic gate. And it certainly drives my rabbinate. My story of being unable to access Judaism motivates me to create a Judaism that is accessible, and, ideally, also create communities that are accessible.
I don't think it's the only source of empathy. There's other rabbis doing this work, and they are Ashkenazi American rabbis. There's also Sephardic rabbis in Israel who are doing this work. And their empathy is fueled by something else than personal narrative.
The only thing that I would want to caution, because this work is beautiful—when you are there in a community of people who love Judaism so much, it's an incredible spiritual high—but in other places, in the past 20 years, there's been cases of, I would call it, almost spiritual colonialism—of people who are coming in with no knowledge of the culture, no knowledge of the inner workings of society, and they've offered a Judaism that is a foreign . . . it's foreign. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
But when I speak of my work with emergent communities and with peripheral Jewish communities with colleagues—with rabbinic colleagues—I always warn them, “This is great. Support this work, open your congregation’s or your organization’s minds to the possibility of a Judaism that transmits itself not through—using a biological metaphor—not by sexual reproduction, but by spores.
We are now . . . Judaism is now reproducing, yes, in the traditional way, but we also have this new disruptive element of the internet, which is creating sporical Judaism, which is you have these bits of Torah flying around, and they fall on the ground, and people will flock to them and retool them and adopt them. If you're getting involved in this, make sure that you're doing it from a place of openness.
Dan Libenson: It shouldn't surprise us to imagine that there are a lot more non-Jews in the world than Jews, and probably a large subset of non-Jews who have some interest in Judaism might actually be interested in quite traditional forms of Judaism in ways that the Jews are not so interested in. It just stands to reason, just playing the percentages. And so, it's interesting to think about . . . people who are concerned about the longevity of traditional forms of Judaism might do well to really move strongly into this world of seeing if there are folks in all kinds of countries and cultures that might be really interested in versions of that more traditional Judaism. But it seems that they're kind of stymied by the kind of notions of Judaism as an ethnicity, as a family. A lot of people take pride in this idea that Judaism doesn’t proselytize.
And in a way, what you're describing is an accidental proselytization, right? I mean, just by putting the material out there, people get interested in it. And once they come to you and they express interest, it's not proselytizing anymore. If more Chinese people want to convert to Judaism than the total number of Jews that exist in the world today, which is very easily possible given the number of Chinese people that there are in China, what's going to happen? And how do you think about that, and how do you talk about that with people who are more used to thinking in traditional terms about Judaism?
Juan Mejia: I think the best metaphor for addressing the proselytization accusation, which gets leveled against me quite often, is the movie “Contact”—Jodie Foster and a very young Matthew McConaughey. We throw messages into space, right—that's the premise of the movie. We've been broadcasting, from Arecibo and the large array, this message to aliens. Guess what? Somebody listened, and now they want to be in contact with us.
That's . . . it's either a spore, or we've been broadcasting, and it's not been intentional. I really . . . these rabbis that are posting blogs are doing it for their flock, and they're doing it for what they see as the extent of the Jewish people, and it's been completely a kind of side effect of Jews taking to the web.
One of the great things about working for Be’chol Lashon is that I've been able to connect with the other “Juans”—the African people who are doing this work in Kenya, in Uganda—Gershom Sizomu is one of my rebbes, one of the most amazing rabbis I know. The people who are doing this in Asia, in the Philippines. The motto of Be’chol Lashon is “we are a global people,” which we tend to forget.
Why do we tend to forget? Because right now we are in a process of de-diasporization, if that is a word. We are a global people because Jews went everywhere, created Judaism that is extremely diverse and rich, but now we're seeing kind of a centripetal force that is bringing everything back to the two big centers—America and Israel—and everything else gets thrown by the wayside.
What I envision is that we truly are a global people, but that with the tools we have right now, we can transcend that and become a global religion. Which is a very different thing. Being a global people means that we have Jews from one core that have expanded and are now everywhere. But being a global religion is having the same values and stories and rituals being replicated throughout the world in slight variations, without this necessary connection to ethnicity.
But I still think that the ideal is that all the members of the Jewish religion are members of the Jewish people—that is the definition that we have of Judaism. I don't want to disrupt that.
Dan Libenson: What if I was an Orthodox rabbi, and I found out that there are 100 million non-Jews out there who are desperate to convert to Judaism and would all be Orthodox? You know, they wouldn't jump at that opportunity because there's something deeply embedded in their understanding of what it means, I think, to be an Orthodox Jew, that ideally you come from a Jewish background. And sure, we accept converts, and if there would be a few converts, that would be okay. But I just think that there's something fundamentally . . . I'm not sure that I can describe it . . . something fundamentally ingrained that would say, even if this would solve our demographic problem forever, we wouldn't jump at it.
And I think that should be puzzled out, because, again, I think that in terms of the theme of our show, that the traditional Jewish movements or traditional Jewish practices, whether that's Orthodox, Conservative, or even Reform, that are struggling with the Jews sort of bleeding away and looking for something different, nevertheless, certainly are not actively seeking converts, and maybe they ought to. I mean maybe that's a disruptive innovation within traditional Judaism that could actually be very effective. Maybe that's a sustaining innovation, but of incredible power.
And I think that that is adjacent to another question that I wanted to ask you—so I think you can answer both—is that there's this idea of safety, this idea that let's not jump into doing things that have the potential to destabilize the whole system. You know, it would be better to risk, maybe, not growing as much as we might or whatever just to make sure that it's sort of more predictable. And like you said, we don't know what's going to happen with all of the global Jews, right? They might be Orthodox, but they might invent some completely different form of Judaism.
And I'm wondering how you think, particularly as a Conservative rabbi, kind of, about the laws of unintended consequences. It seems like it's going to be hard to avoid the laws of unintended consequences unless you want to completely buckle down and shut off the internet, which most people don’t want to do. But there's also a question of how much to embrace the unintended consequences. And it seems that anything that we might do that's actively putting stuff out there really does have to contend with the fact that, even if I believe that I'm doing it in a particular way that's extremely responsible, that's extremely patient and slow, it's probably opening up a chain of events where people are going to jump in that are going to take it further than I feel personally comfortable with. And I'm wondering how you think about that.
Juan Mejia: I have a group of friends—we have our secret little space—and we're all converts who became rabbis, which is a growing demographic, by the way, and it's a demographic that I think is going to be really important in America in the coming decades, because it's a growing number.
Between female ordination and LGBT ordination, the curve started to go up for converts going into the rabbinate. And it was not as publicized or as controversial, but I think it does have a great, great power of change. Imagine that a sizeable number of Jewish leaders, within a decade . . . a third of the entering class at JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary—the rabbinical school of Conservative Judaism] in this year were converts—a third!
So, the numbers are going to pile up, and these are rabbis who might not have one single bubbe or zayde [the Yiddish words for grandmother or grandfather]. What does that mean—that they don’t have a Jewish grandparent? What does that mean for their Judaism? What is their Judaism about?
So we talk and we commiserate that all this talk in the Jewish community about demographic erosion is so frustrating because what we're seeing is the wave.
People are crying over spilled milk on the beach with their backs to the tsunami.
And the tsunami is not intentional—it's inevitable. We don't have to seek converts, we don't have to knock on doors. What we have to do is to institutionally be ready to deal with a massive spike in Jewish interest. And part of what that means is being willing to admit a level of discomfort of Jews who are not like us—ethnically, politically, racially.
We are here in Oklahoma. This is a slightly right-of-center state, to put it mildly, and we have a very robust number of converts in our congregations throughout. When my wife invites rabbis from other places in the country to sit with her in batei din [rabbinic panels] for a conversion, sometimes it's uncomfortable. These people are really . . . they don’t vote like Jews . . . what they recognize as political and social patterns of integration. They believe in Torah, they believe in Jewish history, they see themselves connected as it, and once they go through conversion, they're halachically [according to Jewish law] members of the Jewish people.
One of the things that I see as the greatest boon that American Judaism has provided is because most of American Jews have a non-Jewish grandparent—at least—and have non-Jewish friends and family and coworkers and spouses . . . and this also is now going to apply to rabbis as well—I know tons of rabbis who have a Catholic grandmother, an Irish grandfather, who have Native American, African-American narratives also on their part—is to transcend this adversarial relationship with the gentile that we have had over 2,000 years of tragic Diaspora history.
Let's rethink the “goy” [Hebrew word for non-Jew], because the gentile is no longer the Cossack coming to burn down my village—might be, there are some anti-Semites in the world—but the goy is also my grandfather, my mother, my father, the people from which I learned Torah.
People are really surprised when I tell my conversion story and say, “How did your family take it?” And I say, “Look, my family—it was hard for them, but at the end of the day when I sat with them, I said, like, ‘The religious values you gave me brought me here. I am living out your ethics and your love and your passion for God in a different way, but I could not be . . . you're still my rabbeim [my religious teachers].’”
One of my rebbes, in a deeply spiritual way, is the headmaster of my Benedictine school in Columbia. This guy taught me everything I know about devotion and hard work. So, I can bring part of my Benedictine upbringing to my Judaism. That doesn’t make me Christian. That enriches my Judaism.
Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for all of what you've brought today. It's just really inspiring and beautiful—I feel comfortable using both of those words—to hear your story. Are there any final thoughts that you'd like to bring related to any of the issues you've touched upon, or new topics that you think are important for listeners out there to hear?
Juan Mejia: One of the areas of my work that doesn’t usually come to the fore is, people almost always think that I am doing Judaism in Spanish south of the border. And there is an incredible amount of Spanish-speaking Jews here. It's one of the things that we're starting to realize. The immense amount of Latino Jews, both by choice and by birth and by immigration, that are currently making part of the American Jewish world, is something that gets ignored. And it's a demographic that relates very differently to institutions, to Torah, to community.
And in many cases, they have been innovators. Where are the rabbis from B'nai Jeshurun in New York from? They are from Argentina. They brought the kind of Judaism that Marshall Meyer, of blessed memory, created in Buenos Aires that was very musical and very spiritual. And, being incredibly talented guys, they brought it to New York, where it flourished.
I would just emphasize the great opportunities that we find in cross-pollination.
Lex Rofes: Thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us such great insights today.
Juan Mejia: It's been my honor and my privilege, and I'm a devout listener as well.
Lex Rofes: All right. We love hearing that. It's always fun when the guests we have are our listeners. And, as an aside, this episode largely came together because Juan actually was in touch with us after hearing some of our past episodes, and that's the perfect segue into how we like to close every episode, which is a request for you to be in touch with us, and there's a few ways for you to do that.
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So, thanks so much for listening, and with that, this has been Judaism Unbound.