Though only my father was Jewish at the time, my parents raised my older brother, Aaron, and me according to the Jewish faith. We attended our local Jewish Community Center, Talmud Torah, and as a family we attended a Conservative synagogue in El Paso, Texas. In 1995, when I was eight and Aaron was ten, we decided to convert to Judaism. The following year, my mom's father, Grandpa Meza, took me for a drive through the pecan groves outside of El Paso. He recounted stories to me about his childhood and my family history.
My mom's side of the family was originally from Spain, but moved to Mexico around the time of the Spanish Inquisition. My ancestors settled in Monterey, Mexico, where they remained until immigrating to the United States. Grandpa Meza described a box that had been passed down from generation to generation: "It is wooden, with a carved six-pointed star on the top, a blue velvet interior, and inside are the most beautiful set of candlesticks." It turns out that my great-grandmother stored not only Shabbat candlesticks in the box, which she lit on Friday nights just before dinner-time, but other Jewish relics. At age nine I did not understand the significance of the Jewish items nor did I understand that my mom's side of the family, practicing Catholics, were potentially Jewish.
In 1997, after many years of attending synagogue, my mother decided that she wanted to convert to Judaism. She went through the conversion process and became Jewish. Aaron had his Bar Mitzvah in 1998 and later that year my mom and dad had a Jewish wedding. Not many adolescents can say that they watched their parents stand under the Chuppah and sign their Ketubah. In order to increase our Jewish experience, my brother and I attended the El Paso Jewish Academy for the remainder of middle school.
In 2000, my mom had a Bat Mitzvah and four months later I followed suit. There was no better inspiration to proceed with a Bat Mitzvah than to learn all of the prayers alongside my mother. In 2001, my parents had my little brother, Isaac, an amazing boy and the first born Jew in my immediate family other than my dad. It was a high-risk pregnancy, but God watched over my mom and Isaac throughout the process. Isaac was born premature, with a heart defect, and large holes in his heart. He was placed in the ICU and the doctor said he would need heart surgery. The holes miraculously healed on their own over the next week and his heart defect was deemed to be minor. Now, a healthy and happy young boy, Isaac is very involved in the El Paso Jewish community.
In between the many miracles and hustle and bustle of B'nai Mitzvot, one of Grandpa Meza's brothers told my mom about the box of Jewish relics. She was astounded and realized at that moment that she was meant to be Jewish all along. My parents began researching conversos, or b'nai annousim, a group of Jews from Spain who had to practice their Judaism in secret and appear to be Catholic in order to save their lives. My parents attended Congregation B'nai Zion's annual annousim conference in El Paso and asked questions of the Rabbi, who is an expert on the annousim.
As my parents dug deeper they found out that many Spanish names, especially those containing a Z where an S would normally be, often suggested Jewish ancestry. My great-grandmother Gonzalez and my great-grandfather Meza, fit the mold. Many conversos who entered Mexico from Spain traveled to Monterey, where my family settled. Grandpa Meza recounted stories about my great-grandmother walking into stores where the jeweler or grocer, who happened to be Jewish, would tell her that she always gets a discount for being a member of the "family."
When my grandfather and his five brothers completed their First Communions the priest placed a cross around their necks. After the ceremony, my great-grandmother took their necklaces off and added a Star of David to the chain. She told the boys that they must always remember their roots. It is also suspected that my great-grandmother secretly prayed as a Jew and was a member of a chavurah of sorts. After discovering that she was actually Jewish all along, my mom reminisced about her first visit to a synagogue as a teenager: "My Sunday school class visited a synagogue in Houston and I thought it was beautiful and welcoming - it felt like home. I knew I had found the place where I belonged."
My mom was not the only member of her family to feel the pull toward Judaism. Her sister Teresa was very sick and undergoing Chemotherapy. I was in Israel on a pilgrimage trip with USY and my mother requested that I place a prayer for my aunt in the Western Wall. The morning of my trip to the Kotel, my aunt nearly died. She got Toxic Shock Syndrome while in the hospital and it was misdiagnosed. The doctors told her she may not make it, but God had a different plan. Teresa underwent a miraculous recovery from the Toxic Shock and, months later, from her underlying condition. Before they were aware of their Jewish roots, Teresa told my mom that she was making the right choice in converting to Judaism.
After Teresa's recovery, she told my mom that she knew she could not die being a non-Jew. A couple of years later, my aunt, along with my parents, came to Parents Weekend at Boston University to visit me. I took them to BU Hillel for Friday night services where I lead Kabbalat Shabbat. My aunt had tears in her eyes when I took a seat beside her. She told me that she was moved by the level of excitement and spirit excuded by the college students in their prayers. My aunt is now undergoing the conversion process and attends a Conservative synagogue in Houston. She told Grandpa Meza about her decision and he hugged her and said, "You, like your sister and my grandkids, were meant to be Jewish."
AUTHOR BIO: Rachel Weislow is a student at the Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law in Philadelphia, who expects to receive her degree in 2012. She can be reached at (915) 491-1903 or firstname.lastname@example.org.