Families Find Judaism, Then Sephardic Ancestry
Three Mexican families living in Northwest Georgia choose to convert before DNA fills in their history.
Converting to Judaism is not for the faint of heart. It’s an arduous process that requires devotion and determination. But three Hispanic families who recently converted together felt an unexpected compulsion to do it.
“I had been, through my parents, a Catholic. Then I tried Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, but there was never anything fulfilling,” said Rosaura Álvarez Sierra, 34, who was first attracted to Judaism by her now-husband, Vinício Sierra, while the two worked in a carpet factory and barely knew each other.
“He kept telling me Saturday was the day we are supposed to rest, and I was saying that wasn’t right, but he insisted. Sometimes I would hide from him because I didn’t want to discuss it. But then I began to realize he might be right,” she said.
Get The AJT Newsletter by email and never miss our top stories Free Sign Up
The couple eventually married, and Rosaura initially embraced Judaism more than Vinicio did.
“When I chose Judaism seven years ago, he didn’t want to. He would get mad at me, almost divorced me. These days he studies more than me — the prayers and trying to learn Hebrew,” she said.
“They explained to me Catholicism never felt right to them, so they became very interested in Judaism,” said Karen Kahn Weinberg, who attends Congregation Or Hadash in Sandy Springs with the 13 Mexicans and one Honduran.
It was there that the Sierras and their children were welcomed into the fold during a special Kiddush on Saturday, May 19, along with the families of two brothers, Juan and Rodolfo Romo García, after they went to the mikvah for conversion in February.
“We were drawn toward Judaism. It’s inexplicable. Last year we decided to begin attending a synagogue but were afraid of not being accepted. We gave it much thought in order to take this step and looked online for all the synagogues around here,” Rosaura said.
Or Hadash’s Spanish-speaking rabbis, Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj, who are from Argentina, were crucial to the choice of the Conservative congregation, said daughter Rosi Sierra, despite the lengthy drive for the families, who all live between Rockmart and Cartersville.
Currently a medical assistant, Rosi was never exposed to Judaism while growing up, “but as time went on, while in high school, I began to realize it brought something whole to my heart. The journey has been very beautiful, very emotional.”
While studying to become Jews, the Sierra and Romo García families researched their lineage through Ancestry.com and FamilyTree.com and discovered they have Jewish ancestry.
“They felt a calling. Lo and behold, they did their DNA tests, and they’re all Sephardic,” Weinberg said.
She said they are likely descended from Jews who were ousted from Spain in 1492 after the Alhambra Decree, which demanded that Jews convert to Catholicism to avoid expulsion. The edict was handed down by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, resulting in the banishment of some 200,000 Jews from Spanish territories.
Many who fled became the unwitting victims of piracy. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Tens of thousands of refugees died while trying to reach safety. In some instances, Spanish ship captains charged Jewish passengers exorbitant sums, then dumped them overboard in the middle of the ocean. In the last days before the expulsion, rumors spread throughout Spain that the fleeing refugees had swallowed gold and diamonds, and many Jews were knifed to death by brigands hoping to find treasures in their stomachs.”
“Our ancestors were probably separated and persecuted, even annihilated, but we are here now,” said Rosaura Álvarez, who believes that her maiden name is derived from the Hebrew word haaretz (“the land”). She added that Spanish Jews, on arrival in Mexico, first settled in the municipality of Guadalajara, named after a city in Spain and her father’s birthplace, and it is they who developed the area.
A part of the families’ path to Judaism involved going to Israel in January 2017, before their conversion, a trip they all found to be mystically enlightening. Juan Romo García, 40, the younger of the two brothers, recalled it as a special experience.
“It’s hard to explain. It’s something very strong, and you have to go there to feel it. Even the calves are pretty. Everything is lovely. It felt like going home. It stays with you for the rest of your life. I don’t want my son to forget it. I want it to stay here,” Juan said, pointing to the head of 11-year-old Jordan.
Juan’s wife, Katia, agreed. “The atmosphere is different. You feel it in the air. We started reading the Torah, then went to Israel, and, yes, it changed our lives physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
She always felt there had to be more to life than just working and looking after children, and being accepted into Judaism is a privilege. “It’s all been worth it — hard at times but not that hard. You have to keep questioning. We want more; we now know there’s more than just one life.”
Long before converting, Rosaura’s husband, Vinício, recalled, he would sometimes follow Jewish teachings without realizing what they were. “There are small things we kept doing, not knowing they were originally commandments of Hashem. For example, we show respect to a woman after giving birth by not touching her for 40 days.”
He added, “Ten years ago we had no idea we would be here, converted, getting circumcised. Back then, all I wanted to do on a Saturday was make more money for myself.”
Life was often difficult for Juan’s brother, Rodolfo, 43. A forklift driver who used to work in timber, he had a preoccupation with material wealth and was seldom satisfied. “I would wake in the middle of the night, worrying and thinking about things that were out of my control. Now I understand that’s out of my reach and that there are things in life I can’t change. I’ve learned to let go, and I’m more at peace now.”
Rodolfo’s wife, Rina, 40, who is from Honduras and thus the sole non-Mexican in the group, said: “When we are here (at Or Hadash), it feels like family. It’s something very different from when we are with our blood relatives.”
Rosaura concurred. “When I look around the congregation, surrounded by Jews, I get very emotional. That’s when I consider myself one of them.”
Sitting in at the start of the families’ interview, Rabbi Bortz said Or Hadash is highly inclusive. “Although we are part of the Conservative movement, we have people coming from every single denomination — secular, Reform, Reconstructionist — everyone gravitates here because it’s a very participatory, eclectic, multinational congregation.”
She said that the congregation is proud and honored to welcome the converts, that many tears have been shed, and that the fathers and sons all readily agreed to undergo a bris, the ritual circumcision, wanting fully to be part of the people of Israel. They asked all the right questions, even more so than regular congregants, and were fully committed and engaged.
“They became, little by little, much more, I would say, ritually observant,” Rabbi Bortz said. “Some of them are going to become rabbis. They just don’t know it yet.”