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One Famous Sephardic Jew of the United States you don't know
Alicia H. Weber
‘I’m a Jew, whether you or anyone likes it or not!’"

Archbishop Antonio Hernández, O.M.D.- Buddhist priest of the Chinese T’sao-t’ung Ch’an tradition, founder of the Independent Buddhists of America, acting minister of the ecumenical Progressive Universal Life Church, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, anthropologist, artist, poet, musician and author.

Raised as a Catholic by his Mexican immigrant parents, Abp. Hernandez learned early in life what it is to suffer identity complexes. Diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, mild autism and Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, Abp. Hernandez has lead a life of undaunted fighting for civil, religious and non-religious freedom. He has been a champion of anti-discrimination laws, and is active in gay rights campaigning. The archbishop has also contributed much to medicine with his writings on neurological diseases.
Hernandez Most of Abp. Hernández’s background is lost in the mists of time; he only knows his that his great-great grandparents on his mother’s side were Sephardic Jews, who emigrated to Mexico in the early 19th century, most likely from the Spanish Netherlands, Belgium. His father’s ancestors, who are almost totally unknown beyond his great-grandparents, were also Sephardim, who came long ago from the Spanish West Indies, probably late in the 18th or early in the 19th centuries. The archbishop half-jokingly suspects that his father, who is mostly black, "is a misplaced Ethiopian Jew."

Deeply in love with Jewish tradition from an early age, though raised as a stricter-than-strict Catholic, Abp. Hernández began studying the Sephardim and their history for fun. After the death of his beloved mother in 2000, Abp. Hernandez was stunned to discover that all of his ancestors’ surnames were on the "Sephardic Names rolls". Prior to this, he had absolutely no knowledge of his Jewish ancestry. He had, as he has often said, been studying his own people all along.

Abp. Hernández tries to comment on his Jewishness with aplomb, but a childlike enthusiasm comes gushing through. He says, "I looked at a website, and found a list, it was a sort of ‘If Your Family Has These Customs, They are Sephardic Jews’ list. It’s at Well, I read that list of traditions and customs… I was floored! It was like reading about my family. My family! And I have no idea if anyone in our family knew or suspected the truth. But I think at least some of them did. We of my generation didn’t, I can tell you."

Later, the archbishop was deeply wounded when he e-mailed a rabbi with a question. "My e-mail just laid out the facts about my family’s history, then I asked the rabbi, ‘Am I a Jew?’
Well, he wrote back saying, ‘No. You weren’t raised Jewish and you aren’t a practicing Jew.’ That raised my ire, and I wrote to him and said being Jewish is a matter of choice and a matter of opinion. Then I told him, ‘I’m a Jew, whether you or anyone likes it or not!’"

Abp. Hernández, who recently converted from Buddhism to Judaism, studied Torah and Kabbalah for a year, then left Judaic practice with his rabbi’s blessing, is happy to practice Buddhism… with a twist.
"Where else in the world but America can I be an archbishop of an independent American Buddhist order, call myself a Jew, be a minister with a largely Christian ecumenical-universal church, and have congregants of every stripe?!"

Abp. Hernández is deeply moved by what he calls "as great a loss of Jews as the ha-Shoah [the Holocaust]." He refers to Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews who have no inkling of their heritages. "Like Madeline Albright. Sure, there’s the nose," he chuckles good-naturedly. "But really, who knew?"

He is unhappy not only with this centuries-old identity loss, but also the religious and political ramifications. "It infuriates me when Orthodox Jews begin sticking their noses into the business of the poor Sephardim," he exhales harshly. "This is not what happened to me. But I see the ‘Ashkenazization’ of the Sephardim everyday. There should be no separation, other than generally, you see, geographically, such as Western Jews and Eastern Jews."
The archbishop leans back thoughtfully. "We are ALL siblings, in the eyes of the Eternal," he sighs. "I don’t know why an Orthodox rabbi with his head in the sand in Israel should have a say about the Sephardic future. Or its past." He leaps to his feet with great celerity and loudly says, "It’s like the Dalai Lama trying to tell the Japanese Zen Buddhists what to do! Too much has changed for this Jew-against-Jew crap!"

He removes his ever-present skullcap briefly to scratch his head, studies the skullcap, and smiles broadly. "A Buddhist kipah", he says slowly and contentedly, using the Hebrew word for ‘yarmulke’. "It’s a gift!" He does not mean someone gave it to him; he is quoting Tolkien. "No, I have a huge collection, I’m like a rabbi. Something from almost every tradition."
Abp. Hernández has written a surprisingly popular 100-page history of the skullcap around the world. (The free book, My Kingdom for a Crown, can be found at "Everyone had them," he chuckles. "It was a fashion statement as well as a tribal necessity, for countless millennia." Then the archbishop lunges toward me, firmly positioning his skullcap back on his head for a second, then just as firmly planting it on my head. "Bless you, and keep it," he says warmly. "It’s a GIFT!!"

© Alicia H. Weber, September 2002

Recent Article by Rev. Antonio Hernandez
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-Alaskan native and tavern owner, referring to the people of Alaska

Rev Antonio Hernandez

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