When Gael Juarez-Romero stood up in front of the congregation during his bar mitzvah speech and said, “I don’t have much family, but you are my family,” there wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary at Congregation Or VeShalom.
Gael began attending Or VeShalom with his mother, Isadora Romero, when he was 4 years old. He has grown a lot since he and his mother left Mexico City for a better life in the United States, but what began as a simple immigration story turned into a spiritual journey for Gael and his mother.
“I’m ready to have the responsibility of being Jewish,” he said late one Saturday night after Havdalah.
He and his mother never miss a service, driving 45 minutes to an hour between their home in Woodstock and OVS in Brookhaven.
Romero said G-d brought them to OVS.
“When we first started coming, my car had an engine that was about to die, but we would always get here,” she said in Spanish. “It was Hashem. There are so many miracles that we’ve had in our lives.”
She is a woman of faith, believing in things unseen and constantly praying to Hashem. Romero has countless stories of divine intervention, including a sentence of a $6,000 fine and probation with an ankle monitor as a result of an expired visa that was reduced to $1,000.
“I cried,” she said, holding back tears through broken English. “I told Hashem I have emunah.”
Romero’s grandmother in Mexico was Jewish, but her religion was hidden, she said. “My father would always say there is only one G-d.”
She saw her grandmother say the blessings over the bread and wine and light Shabbat candles, but she didn’t have a point of reference for the experience until she attended synagogue. From there, she taught herself and Gael Hebrew. Now she sits in the women’s section at OVS and reads from the siddur.
“It was easy to learn the Hebrew. Every time I came, I felt happier and happier,” Romero said.
But Gael needed a little time to grow before fully embracing Judaism.
“I thought they were speaking Japanese,” he said. At age 4, he slept through services, and as he got older, he focused on other things.
“The most exciting part about synagogue was playing,” Gael said.
Saturday services at OVS begin at 10:30 a.m. and last until about 12:30 p.m. Gael usually played with his friends, running around the halls of OVS during the two-hour stretch.
But as time inched closer to his 13th birthday, one by one his friends left until he was the only kid his age.
“I was told by Rabbi (Hayyim) Kassorla I had to sit down and go to the men’s section the entire service,” Gael said.
Soon he was preparing for becoming a bar mitzvah. Standing in front of the entire congregation to declare his commitment to the Jewish people was nerve-racking for the outgoing 13-year-old, but he mustered the courage to get through it.
For Gael, becoming a bar mitzvah May 20 meant taking on a bigger role within a synagogue family that is home to many Mexican Jewish men he admires.
“I want to do this because I want to be in a minyan and become even more a part of the family,” Gael said.
“I hope he is OK and contributes to the community,” Rabbi Kassorla said at oneg after Shabbat services. “I was more nervous than he was.”
The Sephardic rabbi credits Romero with overcoming adversity to be a part of the Jewish people. Her spirit and joy make her an exemplary Jew, Rabbi Kassorla said.
“His mother single-handedly found Judaism and instilled it in her family. … She’s our family,” Rabbi Kassorla said. “They’re a light of joy and happiness. It’s been an honor to be associated with the family.”