ONKERS - The fate of the Lincoln Park Jewish
Center might have been easily predicted. Members of the congregation
were aging and membership was steadily declining. There was no sign
of a revival.
Rabbi Rigoberto Emanuel Viņas might have seemed an unlikely
The differences between the rabbi and the synagogue's members
were plenty. He was Orthodox, they were not. At 34, he was young
enough to be their son. His Cuban family traced their roots to
Spain, while the American-born congregants were almost all
descendants of Eastern Europeans.
But in the two years since Rabbi Viņas began leading the Lincoln
Park synagogue, more than 30 families have joined. People who have
been members for decades use words like inspired and invigorated
when they talk about the changes. The newcomers also speak of the
dynamic atmosphere, then go on to cite the ways the congregation has
made them feel welcome.
Sometimes, Rabbi Viņas hears hints of the excitement. He does not
hide his pleasure.
"This is exactly what I want," he said one evening last week, as
members chatted after a Torah study class. "I see it as an
experimental laboratory for everybody."
Rabbi Viņas makes it clear that he does not want to simply
increase the numbers at Lincoln Park. That surely is every clergy
member's goal. His intention is more ambitious and fraught with some
risk. What he is trying to do, he said, is widen his congregation's
spiritual tent to include a broader spectrum of Jews.
"It is still difficult for many people to recognize how diverse
the Jewish community actually is," he said. "Now it's time to come
to grips with that and show how it can work."
And at Lincoln Park it is working. About half the congregation's
newest families are Latino, and the synagogue's roster is now
sprinkled with surnames like Arriaga, Fonseca, Marcano and
Rodriguez. Rabbi Viņas is motivated in his task by his experiences
as a Latino Jew and the many occasions in which, he said, people
have been shocked to meet a Cuban rabbi.
As one response to the inevitable "how can that be?" questions,
Rabbi Viņas patiently explains that over the years he has met
hundreds of Latino Jews in the New York area.
The Lincoln Park shul now runs advertisements in Spanish-language
newspapers, including one of the largest in the region, El Diario.
On Sunday evenings, Rabbi Viņas teaches a class in Spanish on the
weekly Torah reading. This weekend, he will conduct one Passover
Seder in English and another in Spanish.
Carmen-Maria Rodriguez, who is called Esther by her Jewish
friends, lives on Staten Island, but is considering renting an
apartment in Yonkers to be closer to Rabbi Viņas. Since she does not
drive on the Sabbath, she will often stay with friends from the
congregation who live close to the center.
"When we sit around the table eating, it's like this
representation of families from all over the world," she said.
Like Rabbi Viņas, Ms. Rodriguez, 50, is the child of Cuban exiles
who immigrated to the United States in the 1960's. "It's like any
observant Jewish community," she said, "but with a little
The personal histories of the new Latino members are varied. Some
are the children of Holocaust survivors who settled in Buenos Aires.
Some are New York City-bred Puerto Ricans who married Jewish
sweethearts. Others, like Ms. Rodriguez, believe their ancestors
were among the Jews who were forced centuries ago to convert to
Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. They are known as
anusim, a Hebrew term that refers to Jews who forcibly converted.
Rabbi Viņas welcomes them, too.
Over the last decade, Rabbi Viņas has performed dozens of
"ceremonies of return" for people who grew up in Roman Catholic
homes watching their grandmothers perform rituals they believed were
strange family customs, such as lighting candles on Friday nights.
Rabbi Viņas's efforts to reach out to anusim makes him somewhat of a
"It's certainly not something that people would say is a
priority," said Steven Bayne, the national director of contemporary
Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee in New York. "We are
focusing on retaining the people we already have, not churching the
Historically, Jewish religious authorities considered converts to
Judaism to be on a "higher spiritual level" than those who were born
Jewish. In practice today, however, converts are often met with
skepticism, if not hostility, said Marc D. Angel, the senior rabbi
at Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side, who has
written a book on the history of conversion that is to be published
later this year.
"There is a whole long history of persecution, so there are
questions as to why someone would choose to be part of the
community," Rabbi Angel said. "Since the rules of Judaism are so
complicated, people really have to want to go that distance."
For the graying veterans at Lincoln Park, which has about 120
families, the new blood is welcome. Many of them know that Rabbi
Viņas has helped many people convert, but no one bothers to make the
distinction about individual worshipers.
Mollie Katz, 82, started worshiping at Lincoln Park when she
moved to Yonkers with her young children more than 40 years ago. She
attends Rabbi Viņas's English-language Torah class, and she is
fiercely proud of the synagogue's history.
"Everyone here has blended in perfectly with each other," Mrs.
Katz said. "I imagine that if we were overwhelmed, you'd have people
commenting, 'All he is bringing in are Spanish people.' But we have
children again. We have energy again."
Initially, Mrs. Katz said, there were rumors that Rabbi Viņas
would change the congregation's longstanding customs to reflect his
own practices rooted in the Sephardic traditions of North Africa and
Spain. But Rabbi Viņas made it a point to stipulate in his contract
that he had no plans to alter the way the synagogue sees itself - as
an Eastern European Ashkenazic shul.
"I am very happy honoring what they built," he said. The
congregation, which had been Conservative, had no problem accepting
an Orthodox rabbi.
Rabbi Viņas is also happy to challenge the perception some Jews
might have of an Orthodox rabbi. It is not unusual for him to warmly
embrace a congregant he is close to or to pepper his comments with
"oye," rather than "oy vey."
Rabbi Viņas continues his outreach work because he believes there
are many people, including Latinos, who are looking for new
"If they come here, I want to be able to say, 'This is a house of
God and you are welcome to explore it,' " he said. "I want to show
that the people who haven't been included are people who can build
and maintain an Orthodox community."
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