36 Under 36 2009: Juan Mejía, 31
Friday, April 24, 2009

At 15, Juan Mejía was attending a prestigious Catholic high school in Colombia, hoping one day to become a monk. Little did he know that 16 years later, he would actually become a rabbi.

As a child, Mejía’s paternal grandfather used to watch as the men in his family performed a strange ritual: they would gather in a room, drape their heads in towels and pray. Then as an adult, the grandfather, who was a clothing salesman, observed his Jewish customers performing a similar ritual. After probing his cousins for more information, the grandfather finally learned that he was a Jew by blood.

The grandfather kept the family’s identity secret. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Mejia discovered his Jewish roots.

Mejía enrolled in the National University of Colombia, where he abandoned the monastery for secular philosophy and then became interested in medieval Jewish thought. Soon after discovering his family’s past, he became so intrigued by his Judaic studies that he took a spontaneous trip to Israel at age 19. In Israel, he excitedly explored Jewish history and modern society but said he was disappointed to feel oddly sad during his visit to the Western Wall.

"What I experienced was my sense of disconnection ... and an incredible sense of anger toward my family," he says. "I needed to fix this."

When he returned to Colombia, Mejía attempted to get involved in the local Jewish community, but neither the Sephardic nor the Ashkenazi community welcomed him.

He eventually enrolled in a master’s program at Hebrew University, where he met his future wife. While there, he attended about a dozen yeshivot. The rabbis assured him that he was ready to convert after a year of learning, Mejía says. Because he distrusted the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, he converted with a Conservative Israeli rabbi in 1999.

After releasing his story to an Internet news site, Mejía began receiving e-mails from people all over Latin America with similar quandaries. He wanted to help but felt he lacked the authority. So his wife encouraged him to apply with her for rabbinic ordination, and both ended up at Jewish Theological Seminary here.

When he receives his ordination in the spring, Mejía hopes to end up somewhere in the southwestern United States, where he can help local Latin American Jews build and become leaders in new Jewish community organizations (his Web site is www.koltuvsefarad.com).

"I need to empower the local Anusim [descendants of Crypto-Jews] communities in Latin America and the Southwest to do their own thing," Mejía said, adding that ultimately, he hopes to build a yeshiva for this specific population.

Quadrilingual: Mejía speaks Spanish, English, Hebrew and German.

Staff Writer

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