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'Converso': Out of the Shadows and Into the Rabbinate

June 8, 2006 By:
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Jordi Gendra

Though Jordi Gendra wasn't really raised with any sense of religion, as a young boy growing up in Barcelona, Spain, he didn't eat pork, he lit candles for the deceased and, though he didn't pray, he knew that if he ever were to, he'd have to cover his head. He also knew that what he was - Jewish - had to be kept a secret from the outside world.

"From my paternal grandfather, we inherited an identity," he said, adding that both his parents were Jewish. "We were told we came from a Jewish background, but it was for us, not for out on the streets. It's something you kept private."

This month, the 36-year-old will be one of the few conversos - descendants of 15th and 16th century Spanish Jews who converted to Christianity or took on the appearance of conversion to escape persecution or expulsion - to be ordained as a rabbi when he graduates from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote.

When he was 11, his family moved to Olot, a small town outside of Barcelona. His parents sent him and his two younger sisters to the Catholic school across the street from their home; but, following a request made by their father to the school's administration, they were not required to attend Mass like the other students. By the time he was 14, Gendra said, he was very curious about his background and set out to learn Hebrew.

"Suddenly, you are in a little town and wondering, 'Where am I fitting in to all these big things.' I started looking for my roots and I was absorbing whatever I could find."

He started with a copy of Oxford's A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, written in English, which was not his first language. Soon, Gendra began attending services at the closest synagogue, an Orthodox one three hours away in Barcelona.

But, he said, perhaps because of its fear of outsiders or its attempt to keep a low profile, the congregation was not very welcoming to him.

After moving to Barcelona and enrolling at the university there to study Semitic languages, he was faced with a different dilemma: The congregation he'd been attending for several years split into two, Moroccan Orthodox and Argentinian Conservative. Rabbi Edgar Nof from Haifa led the Conservative one, which Gendra decided to join. The rabbi began a conversion class, which attracted 30 men and women, including Gendra.

"He told us it would take years, and not everyone would pass," remembered Gendra.

For three years, Nof educated them on all things Jewish. In September 1995, 18 had made it through the process - Gendra among them - and were officially welcomed into the Jewish religion on the beaches of Barcelona, after a ritual submersion in the ocean. The conversions were done according to Reform practice, said Gendra, and the men were circumcised.

Gendra continued being active in his synagogue in Barcelona, but his job as a translator took him to Mallorca, a small island in the Mediterranean Sea with a Jewish community of 50-some families.

He ran into some road blocks at the shul there. Although it was founded by a Reform rabbi, most of the congregants were Orthodox. Gendra, being a Reform convert, was not recognized as fully Jewish by many in the congregation. Still, he was involved in activities and sometimes even led services.

"I planned the first Yom Hashoah event on the island," said Gendra of his proudest accomplishment. "The local government attended the memorial. It was then that I decided to become a rabbi."

That same year, Gendra read an article in Moment magazine about Reconstructionist Judaism. He subsequently read Mordecai Kaplan's Judaism as a Civilization and felt a pull to the Wyncote-based rabbinic college. He eventually moved to the United States and enrolled in RRC's five-year program in 2001.

After this month's graduation, Gendra will be installed as the rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom of Greater Harrisburg located in Mechanicsburg, Pa. Established 30 years ago, the Reconstructionist synagogue is home to 80 families.

"I knew that was what I was looking for," he said of his education at RRC. "I was looking for a way to run a congregation - something that goes beyond religion because that's how I experienced it. It wasn't a religion, it was a culture and an identity."

 

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