Rabbi who helped thousands convert to Judaism dies at 89

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mexico city | Rabbi Samuel Lerer, who some say converted more people to Judaism than anyone in the past two centuries, has died at age 89.

Lerer, who had retired to San Antonio, Texas, lived in Mexico City from 1968 to 1999 while leading English-language Beth Israel Community Center in the capital. During that time, the Conservative rabbi reached out to Mexicans who believed they were descended from Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition.

He died peacefully on Thursday, Feb. 5.

By his own count, Lerer converted about 3,000 people, mostly in the Mexican cities of Veracruz, Venta Prieta and Puebla. More than 500 of those have since moved to Israel.

Lerer’s liberal views on conversion sometimes drew criticism from the Mexican Jewish establishment.

“There are rabbis who think differently and there are rabbis who think like me,” he said four days before his death, during an interview in Veracruz, where he had traveled to perform a bar mitzvah. “This has been my purpose in life. I have a limited life but whatever I could, I did.”

Beth Israel’s rabbi and congregants remembered Lerer as an intelligent scholar with a loving heart, an engaging sense of humor and a bright smile.

His widow, Marguerite, spoke to the congregation with strength and passion. His burial took place Sunday, Feb. 8.

Samuel Lerer was born in Palestine and was ordained as a rabbi in 1938. He served congregations in Montgomery, Ala.; Hollywood, Fla., and Akron, Ohio.

He was a professor for four years at the University of Iowa before moving to Mexico to lead Beth Israel, which was founded by Jews from the United States.

In addition to his wife, Lerer is survived by his daughter Adina Karp of Long Island, N.Y.; his son Jeffrey Warren Lerer of Manhattan; two granddaughters and two great-grandsons. His son, Rabbi Nathan Aaron Lerer, died two years ago.