Rabbi Mindie Snyder of Congregation Lev Shalom in Flagstaff chose to honor the late Rabbi Yosef Garcia — the president of the Association of Crypto-Jews of the Americas and founder of Avde Torah Jayah in Chandler, and a friend to Snyder — not by just mentioning his achievements as a spiritual leader, but by focusing on a love story.
Snyder led a memorial service for Garcia on Sunday, July 28, at the Valley of the Sun JCC. There she told the story of how Garcia met his wife, Yvonne, and the great lengths the two went to stay together.
“Yosef had accepted a job in Colorado, but Yvonne was going to school at University of California Davis,” Snyder told listeners. “After a few months, it just wasn’t working and he left Colorado for California to be with her.”
The two also had two weddings, one in 1985 and a civil ceremony in 1987. And then, in 2003, the Garcias celebrated their holy union in the Jewish tradition.
“Just to be sure,” Snyder joked.
Yvonne and her son, James Garcia, shared a slideshow showing her and her husband as a young couple, raising their son and a dozen more photos of the rabbi and several of his congregants.
Garcia died on June 16 at 62.
In a life filled with a strong commitment to Sephardi Jews, Garcia was mostly remembered for his love of the Jewish community and acceptance of everyone he met.
Other rabbis and some of Garcia’s congregants told personal stories about the rabbi. While all the stories were different, the speakers unanimously agreed that Garcia’s optimism, energy and eagerness were infectious.
“I was sitting with him just a week before he passed,” James Garcia recalled. “I was a little tired and I told him that things were a little tough. He smiled at me and said that I needed to always remember the reason why I put in the work and he said that I would be able to find that joy.”
The immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix, Rabbi Robert Kravitz, said that Garcia’s personal warmth and friendliness were wonderful. He added that Garcia also gave the biggest hugs.
“His devotion to bringing folks back into the family of Jews to their everlasting heritage will be a historical tribute to the community,” Kravitz said. “Through his teachings and travels, he developed an extended family.”
Garcia also served on the Board of Rabbis.
Garcia was ordained as a rabbi in 2003 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — also known as Reb Zalman, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement. Throughout his career as a rabbi, Garcia welcomed many other crypto-Jews — decedents of Sephardi Jews — into the Jewish faith through a “ceremony of return.” Those who partook in the ceremony weren’t converting to become Jewish, but were being welcomed back to their religion. Yvonne estimated that there were thousands of crypto-Jews who were looking to discover their heritage.
Despite his work as a rabbi, he never took a salary as a spiritual leader, though that work largely defined him. One of Garcia’s congregants, Janet Silva, spoke about first meeting him.
“We met at Milk & Honey at 9 and we kept talking until about 2:30,” Silva said. “I was really interested in discovering my Jewish heritage and wasn’t having any luck in New York, which is where I’m from. When I met Rabbi Garcia, it felt like everything was falling into place.”
Even though she only knew Garcia for about two years, she credited him with helping her through very difficult times. Other congregants spoke of how he had helped them through tough times as well, and said he was always there for them, no matter the circumstances.
Silva added that now she feels that his congregants are a flock without a shepherd, but she and all the others who spoke said they would honor his memory going forward.
At the end of the memorial, Yvonne took the stage and shared something Garcia said to her the day before he died.
“I suppose that in the eyes of others in this world that I’m a poor man, because I didn’t take a salary as a rabbi,” her late husband said. “But my pay was that I saw the joy and the peace in the eyes of those I have returned. In my opinion, I’m the wealthiest man in the world.” JN