Brighton offers peace, a place for newcomer

When he was 20, Jose Raul Morales left his native Puerto Rico for New York City, where he earned his livelihood driving a truck and drew spiritual sustenance from the Pentecostal Church.

For 35 years, Morales’ life followed a familiar rhythm of family, work and church. So devoted was he to the church that he went to school to become an ordained minister.

But five years ago, a sense of disquiet began to grow inside him — a feeling he was lacking true direction and that, spiritually, he was going in circles.

Things came to a head once Morales invited a fellow preacher (whose taped lectures he listened to and whose teachings he admired) to address his congregation. In his speech, the preacher briefly touched on Judaism and Judaic themes. That was all Morales needed to hear.

“It was like he was pregnant,” his Bronx-born, second wife, Ruth, 45, recalls with a laugh, referring to his inability to sleep. “He stayed up all night researching Jewish topics online.”

“I couldn’t go to bed,” Morales says. “I said to myself: ‘Wow, where have I been?’ I never heard this before.”

At one point, after this initial intense exploration, Morales kneeled in prayer in the basement of his house. “I said to the Almighty: “What is this? Where is this coming from?” He felt that God was calling him to learn the Hebrew language in order to arrive at the truth he sought.

Morales turned to the Internet for guidance.

As a Spanish speaker, he specifically sought a Sephardic congregation (Jews who trace their lineage to Spain). His research put him in touch with Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel (Manny) Vinas, a Miami-born rabbi of Cuban descent, who is the founder and director of El Centro de Estudios Judios and a professor of Sephardic history at City College, in New York.

El Centro is a Spanish-language Jewish education and spirituality center for Latin-American Jews living in the New York area. Each week, Rabbi Vinas conducts Spanish-language classes at the center, which is housed in Lincoln Park Jewish Center — the synagogue in Yonkers where he serves as the congregational rabbi.

“I’ve been a congregational rabbi for 35 years,” he says. “As a rabbi in a community, one of the things a rabbi hopes to find is a family that’s seeking out the Torah and Jewish life. I believe that Jose came to our community to assist us, not the other way around.”

For two years, Morales attended classes and prayer services at the synagogue. Under Rabbi Vinas’ tutelage, Morales was introduced to the basics of Judaism: prayer, holidays and life-cycle events.

But then family in Rochester offered Morales a house located in the city. Six months ago, he, his wife and 3-year-old daughter relocated to Rochester.

Once again, Morales needed to find a place to pray and learn. He found that in Congregation Light of Israel, a Sephardic synagogue on Monroe Avenue in Brighton, led by Rabbi Avi Mammon, a New York-born rabbi with Moroccan and Bukharin roots.

But sometimes in life, things don’t move along in a linear fashion. As part of a couple, Morales’ decision to become knowledgeable about Judaism in order to convert affects not only himself but his wife as well.

“He’s a brave man to leave where he came from for so many years. He was raised in a different religion,” Ruth Morales says of her husband.

“I see a big difference in his whole life, from the time he gets up until he goes to bed. There’s a lot of passion coming from him to absorb as much as he can. I admire that, but I’m a bit more reserved, more skeptical.”

It’s not that she isn’t attracted to Judaism. “I’ve seen beautiful things about Judaism that have captured my heart, I just don’t dive into things,” she explains.

“I don’t pressure her,” Morales says. “I try to be an example for her of what I believe.”

Using the Hebrew name for God, Ruth Morales says, “Hopefully, I will get a full understanding of what Hashem has planned for us. If this is the route, this is the route.” Until then, she appreciates the status quo. “I love him for respecting my view as I respect his. We have this understanding.”

Morales agrees. “She gives me space and respect,” he says.

For the time being, Morales makes the trip to the synagogue alone.

“I hope soon she will follow me. I know she loves what I do,” he says.

For more information about Judaism in the Spanish language,

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