Rabbi Samuel Lerer, who some say converted more people to Judaism than anyone in the past two centuries, died February 5 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. 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 people now live in 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,” Lerer told JTA 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 described Lerer as an intelligent scholar with a loving heart, an engaging sense of humor and a bright smile. “All I can say is, ‘What a man,’ “ Rabbi Palti Somerstein said.
Born in Palestine, Lerer was ordained in 1938 by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in Palestine. Lerer 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 a daughter, Adina Karp of Long Island, N.Y.; a son, Jeffrey Warren Lerer of Manhattan; two granddaughters, Debra Brender and Karen Karp, and two great-grandsons. Lerer’s son Rabbi Nathan Aaron Lerer died two years ago.