Featured in “Children of the Inquisition”, Rabbi Stephen A. Leon was born in Brooklyn, New York and graduated from Colombia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, receiving his ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. From 1986 to the present, Rabbi Leon has been the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas and previously was the dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion from 1974 through 1986. Rabbi Leon was also an instructor in Homiletics, Practical Rabbinics, and Cantillations and at the same time served as the rabbi of Elmwood Park Jewish Center in New Jersey from 1971 through 1986.
In addition to leading services, overseeing Talmud Torah, and providing adult education courses, Rabbi Leon has presided over countless life cycle events for El Paso families. He served on the boards of the bioethics committee of Providence Hospital, El Paso Hospice, the Jewish Federation, and the Holocaust Museum. Rabbi Leon wrote numerous articles published in the Paterson News, El Paso Times, and The Jewish Voice of El Paso. He taught in the Religious Studies department of the University of Texas at El Paso. He has appeared on National Public Radio and has made numerous appearances on local television programs. Rabbi Leon has received awards from Israel Bonds, the Israel government Tourist Office, Hadassah, the Bergen County Board of Rabbis, United Synagogue Youth, and others. In 1999, Rabbi Leon received a grant from the El Paso Community Foundation and visited many places in Europe where Crypto-Jews have lived, including Belmont, Portugal where 300 Crypto-Jews formally returned to Judaism. Rabbi Leon is a trusted friend and teacher for the Anusim and has helped many individuals and families make their return to Judaism. On July 5th, 2017 Rabbi Leon’s book “The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim; A Rabbi’s Memoir of an Incredible People” was published. He sent us these update about his book and his recent trip to Israel:
On July 5th, 2017, my book entitled, “The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim; A Rabbi’s Memoir of an Incredible People” was published by Gaon Books of Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the past three decades, I have had the privilege of helping B’nei Anusim to return to their Jewish roots. I have been writing my own memoirs about each of the stories that have been told to me by remarkable individuals who have somehow learned that they have Jewish ancestry and want to explore the possibility of returning to their Jewish heritage. Each story is unique. Each journey is distinctive. In some cases some of those who have come to me have made a sincere commitment and formally returned in a ceremony of “return” or “conversion” and now are living fully Jewish lives. In other situations, some are just curious about the Jewish traditions that they have been practicing but will continue to observe their Christian heritage. There are still others who are not sure what to do and are not yet ready to make a decision. The truth of the matter is that I never expected to become the mentor, teacher or rabbi of such a special group of people. I was born in Brooklyn, New York raised in an Ashkenazi Jewish home, the son of a Cantor, and ultimately was ordained as a Rabbi in 1971. In my first fifteen years as a congregational rabbi in New Jersey, I never met anyone who had Sephardic Jewish roots but had been practicing Christianity.
But my life changed forever when I was engaged as the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Zion in El Paso, Texas in August of 1986. From my first few days in the Southwest, I began meeting crypto-Jews. In fact, in my first week in El Paso, I actually experienced three separate situations of individuals who were part of the Anusim community. Neither they nor I realized at that time, that the impact of those first seven days in Texas would affect both of us for the rest of our lives. Those events and the many other similar experiences have led to my desire to tell the Jewish and general communities throughout the world of the stories of the descendants of the Spanish Inquisition who now we know is alive and well, and living in many communities on this planet. One part of the book tells the stories of the returning B’nei Anusim, and the other part emphasizes how the third of the 10 Commandments is directly related to the evil acts that were practiced by the Church at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
My book illustrates how the Third Commandment which should be followed today by all religious leaders of every faith together with the return of the B’nei Anusim can change the world. It is my hope and prayer that the stories of the crypto-Jews will be read, studied and understood and will have a dramatic effect on Jews and non-Jews throughout the world. “The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim” is available at Amazon.com. The cost is $18. I want to especially thank Ron Duncan Hart for urging me to complete the book which I had started so many times. I also thank my beautiful wife Sharon, and my three incredible grandchildren Daniel, Jordyn, and Emme who bless my life every day. I am grateful to the officers, board, and members of the Anusim Center of El Paso whose support, dedication and loyalty make dreams come true. I especially express my most sincere gratitude to the B’nei Anusim for sharing their stories and for their courage, spirituality, and love.
Just one day after the Anusim/Sephardic Fiesta which was held at my synagogue, Congregation B’nai Zion, El Paso, Texas, on August 6th, my wife Sharon and I left for a two-week visit to Israel. I have led many groups to tour Israel in my career, including two trips especially geared to the B’nei Anusim, however this time we went by ourselves. The first week we spent in Jerusalem and visited family and friends. We attended Shabbat services at the Great Synagogue and listened to Cantor Motzen and the synagogue choir chant the Musaf service which was very moving. When we visited the Western Wall, I offered many prayers including asking God to help bring crypto-Jews back to their Jewish roots. When I touched the tear-soaked stones of the Kotel as I prayed, I could feel a trembling, a vibration and knew in the deepest depths of my heart, that Hashem was listening not only to my prayers but to the yearning in the hearts of the one hundred million descendants of the Spanish Inquisition who are alive and well and live in almost every corner of the world today.
I was invited to speak about my newly published book, “The Third Commandment and the Return of the Anusim”, and also regarding the incredible accomplishments of the Anusim Center in El Paso at the Netanya Academic College. This visit became an important highlight of my entire trip. There is a marvelous learning center at the college called the “Institute for Sephardi and Anousim Studies”. This study center educates the citizens of Israel about the phenomenon of crypto-Jews in society, holds international conferences which bring in outstanding speakers on the subject, and also reaches out to communities in South America, Spain, Mexico and other locations where there is a presence of B’nei Anusim. In addition, I had the privilege of taking a personal tour of the Institute by its manager Salomon Buzaglo who showed me a direct copy of the diary of Christopher Columbus and the Bible used by Queen Isabella. This Institute for Sephardi and Anousim Studies is a storehouse of archival documents and records of the Jewish people from the time of the Inquisition. One of the attendees at my talk was my friend, Professor Avraham Gross, who is very active in the center and who was the keynote speaker at our 13th annual Anusim Conference in El Paso three years ago.
Other participants included Salamon Buzaglo whom I just mentioned, Esti Ofer, Co-ordinator for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue of the college, Dr. Ellie Friedman, Project Manager for the Strategic Dialogue Center, and Lesly Estela Jimenez, who is part of a unique and very important program entitled March of Life. Lesly’s organization is presently planning the March of the Nations Plus Conference that will take place in Israel May 13-15, 2018 together with the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. Along with Lesly were two March of Life activists, one from Germany and one from Roumania. Meeting Lesly was an incredible experience. I had never heard of the March of Life before I met her. This worthy organization builds understanding between the second and third generation of Holocaust survivors and second and third generation descendants of Germans and Nazis responsible for atrocities against the Jewish people. In the case of the survivor families, they did not go through the horrors of the concentration camps, their parents and grandparents did. In the case of the descendants of the Nazis, they were not responsible for killing Jews, their parents and grandparents were the murderers.
I knew of the March of the Living which brings teenagers to spend a week visiting concentration camps in Poland and then a week in Israel, in fact, my daughter Rebekah went on that program many years ago. The March of Life is different. It actually attempts to create understanding, compassion, and peace between the offspring of the victims of the Holocaust and those who committed the crimes. The interesting component of my meeting Lesly, was learning from her that she was born and raised in Colombia and as a Catholic, however when she was a little girl, her father revealed to her that she actually came from Jewish ancestry from Spain. She then chose to return to her Jewish heritage. The fact that this young lady, herself being a descendant of the victims of the Inquisition, not the Holocaust, has now chosen to dedicate her life to ending the racism and hatred which the led to the murder of 6 million Jewish souls during World War II, is a wake-up call to each of us who may have a bit or more of prejudice within us toward people of different color, race, ethnicity, religion or life style. Lesly and I have formed a bond and we will continue to work together to bring understanding to the world regarding the return of the B’nei Anusim and how together how we can partner to bring justice, compassion and peace to a world with so much racism, insensitivity, and hatred for others.
As we approach the High Holy Days, may each of us work a little harder to bring peace and justice to this wonderful world that God has created for each of us. I also hope that we will make plans in the very near future to visit Israel and to show our brothers and sisters in the Jewish State how much we love and support them. Let m e conclude with the words that we say at the very end of Yom Kippur, “L’Shana HaBa’ah Bitirushalyom”. “Next Year May We All Be in Jerusalem.”
– Rabbi Stephen Leon