Yosef was a fitting name for the late Rabbi Yosef Garcia, mused Rabbi Sarah Leah Grafstein of Ruach Hamidbar—Spirit of the Desert.
“Joseph in the Torah was the one who took care of all of his brothers and Rabbi Yosef acted the same way and worked to take care of everyone,” Grafstein said. “Our Yosef had a very big heart; he was incredibly humble and not materialistic. He never made any money from being a rabbi, his main form of income was as an engineer. Everything he did as a spiritual leader was for free.”
Garcia died last week at age 62. He was president of the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas and founder of Avde Torah Jayah in Chandler. Many of his fellow rabbis remember him as being a friendly man with a lot of love to give.
“He was a very kind, gentle soul and his work was very respected,” Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman of Congregation Kehillah said.
Garcia focused his efforts on helping crypto-Jews — descendents of Sephardi Jews who converted to Catholicism to survive the Inquisition — return to Judaism, a cause that was personal for him. Raised as a Catholic in Panama, Garcia was an altar boy until he discovered that all four of his grandparents were Bene Anusim, which translates to “children of those who were forced.” It was then that he first learned he was a crypto-Jew.
Garcia learned of his family’s secret heritage from relatives who kept Jewish traditions in spite of being Catholic. In his autobiographical 2003 essay, “From Altar Boy to Rabbi: A Crypto-Jew’s Story,” for cryptojews.com, Garcia wrote of his maternal grandmother who kept many of those traditions alive. Garcia remembered his grandmother lit candles on Friday night, swept the floors toward the center of the room and covered the mirrors with black cloth when someone died.
“Every generation has had ‘rebels’ like myself who were drawn to Judaism and who found the truth of their Jewishness,” Garcia wrote. “My son’s generation is the first to have the freedom to openly embrace Judaism.”
After leaving the Catholic Church, Garcia worked as a commercial fisherman and then immigrated to the United States, where he served in the Air Force as a telecommunications specialist. In that time he went on a journey to understand his Jewish heritage better. He married his wife, Yvonne, and the two embraced Judaism fully.
Garcia began studying to become a rabbi in the ’90s. He was ordained as a rabbi in 2003 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — also known as Reb Zalman, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement — and was tasked to help crypto-Jews return to Judaism. He opened his first congregation in Portland, Oregon, where he worked exclusively with crypto-Jews.
In Portland, Garcia met Rabbi Joshua Stampfer, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Neveh Shalom and co-founder of the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies.
“His congregation really thrived,” Stampfer said. “I visited it a number of times to give talks and host meetings there. He built up a very devoted following here.”
Stampfer said that many of Garcia’s followers in Portland joined other Jewish congregations in the community thanks to Garcia.
In 2005, Garcia moved to Chandler and opened Avde Torah Jayah to continue his work. He and Yvonne ran the congregation, and at one point the two had an estimated 70 congregants. Many of them initially contacted Garcia to inquire about their potential Jewish heritage before eventually joining as members.
“Almost every day someone would call and tell us about some of their family traditions that weren’t Christian,” Yvonne said. “Yosef had a digital copy of the Inquisition’s records and would consult it whenever someone would contact us. He was essentially doing a sort of genealogy test for them, and he remembered everyone who had even a passing notion that they were Jewish.”
“What’s important to know about him was that he was a man with a mission,” Grafstein said. “He really wanted to help all the Bene Anusim who were seeking to come back to the faith of their ancestors. He created a special Ceremony of Return for crypto-Jews. He would never call it a conversion, but all the aspects of a conversion were included in it.”
Avde Torah Jayah’s Ceremony of Return emphasized that those who partook weren’t converting to become Jewish, but were being welcomed back to their religion. Yvonne estimates that the couple assisted thousands of crypto-Jews who were looking to discover their heritage.
Garcia also became a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix to share the work he was doing. Sharfman, another member of the Board of Rabbis, remembered Garcia at a meeting several years ago, when he was explaining that the Jewish population would be much larger if all the Jews who had been lost to the inquisition would return.
In August 2016, Garcia’s car was struck head-on and the rabbi was treated for a concussion, cracked ribs, a broken hand, severe whiplash to his entire spine, along with deep cuts and bruises. Due to the financial strain of surgery costs, Garcia couldn’t keep Avde Torah Jayah running. However, he still kept moving forward with his mission.
“There would still be people contacting him to find out about their heritage and he kept working to help them,” Yvonne said. “Recently, he was working with people from Ecuador and we would set up video meetings.”
Yvonne said that before he passed away, Garcia was beginning the planning stages for a Jewish heritage center.
“We wanted to create a place where everyone, not just crypto-Jews, could come together and learn about each other,” Yvonne said. “It was his dream to see all Jews, no matter where they were from, come together.” JN