How a Group of American Jewish Expatriates in Central Mexico Came to Be a Magnet for Conversions

April 24, 2019 | Roslyn Bernstein
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Established officially in 2007, the Conservative congregation in the central Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende originally consisted of American and Canadian expatriates, many of whom were retirees. Then its demographic makeup began to change, as Roslyn Bernstein writes:

Mexicans showed up. First, it was one fellow from nearby Queretaro. Later, it was Mexicans who failed to get the answers they wanted from the Catholic Church and became interested in Judaism—only a minority of whom believed that they had Jewish blood. With the help of Rabbi Juan Mejia, himself a convert from Colombia, [its founder], Dan Lessner, began offering comprehensive conversion classes, in person and online, graduating the first group of six students in 2011.

Since then, nearly 70 people have graduated from the congregation’s conversion classes. This March alone, 24 converts graduated—twice as many as any previous year’s cohort—and a recent convert is now leading the congregation. . . .

Mejia’s day job is as the head of a Hebrew school in Oklahoma, but he considers his pro-bono work with converts as his “rabbinic mission.” Raised in Bogota and educated at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he believes that his work with “emerging communities,” a phrase that he says he coined, is the future for Jews in Latin America. . . .

Mejia has set a high bar for San Miguel’s conversion program, meeting all potential converts face-to-face before they are admitted, and requiring them to participate in hundreds of hours of video and live classes for two years. Although he has worked in several communities, . . . San Miguel has been different, he said, because there is a learned leadership there. . . . One basic rule for the conversion classes is not to convert people from outside the Central Plains of Mexico. “They have to be members,” . . . of the congregation, said Lessner.

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