Haim Casas has just arrived in London as one of the new crop of rabbinic students at the Leo Baeck College. It is not a career that would have originally crossed his mind growing up in a Catholic family in Cordoba, Spain.
But his journey to Judaism was not just a new beginning: it was also, after centuries, a kind of return.
The 31-year-old law graduate is a descendant of conversos, Jews who adopted Christianity under duress, to escape expulsion or worse in medieval times at the hands of the Inquisition.
It is a lineage of which he only gradually became aware. When he was a young boy, he recalled, “my mother’s father, whose family name was Casas — the name I use — used to take me to the Jewish quarter of Cordoba every week. He used to tell me about Jews in the city and how painful their expulsion was. He always showed a nostalgia, which for me, was very touching.
“Then two teachers from my school asked about my family name and if I were Jewish. That was a big shock.”
Intrigued, as a teenager he began reading about Jewish history, though without contacts among the city’s small Jewish community, he had viewed Judaism as “archaeology”, a dead civilisation. “Then I discovered there was a Sephardic diaspora — that Spanish Jews were still alive in Morocco, Israel, Turkey, France and Canada. That was also a big shock.”
When he went to university in Seville, he struck up a close friendship with a Moroccan student, who had grown up among Jews and then converted to Judaism himself.
“He became like my brother,” Mr Casas said. “I saw Judaism as a possibility for my life, and started studying more, and practising some of the Jewish holidays.”
A 10-month stay in Reading, where he had gone to improve his English, also helped. “I got in touch with the Orthodox community there and started attending services every Friday.”
When he returned home, he met a non-Jewish family who also had a Jewish background, who were opening a private museum dedicated to the Jewish story in Spain and invited him, six and a half years ago, to work for it.
“I started meeting local Jews, American Jewish students who were in the city for a few months learning Spanish and other Andalucian Jews,” he said.
But Mr Casas did not find open arms among the Orthodox community in Seville, who “never understood the situation of people like me. So I decided to start a new community in Andalucia, with non-Orthodox Jews and Spanish people trying to convert to Judaism. I founded a Jewish community even before I was officially Jewish.”
He set up an association called Bet Rambam, the House of Maimonides, after Cordoba’s most famous Jewish son, whose statue stands in the Jewish quarter. Since last year, a Progressive minyan has met in Seville, an hour away. The network now comprises around 100 people – a fifth of whom are prospective converts, including some with a similar background to Mr Casas’s own.
His personal Jewish ties grew ever stronger as he discovered others with the same family name in Morocco and elsewhere. “In the archives in Paris, there was a Jewish family with the same name who were deported to Auschwitz”, he said.
His paternal grandmother had the family name of Leyva, which some researchers believe is related to Levy.
He chose to undergo a formal conversion from the London-based European Progressive Beth Din, and took the Hebrew name Haim, which happens to sound like the Spanish pronunciation of his first name Jaime (James).
Now it is his dream to return to Andalucia as its first permanent Progressive rabbi. “There is an amazing future for the Jewish community in Spain if we work on two issues. We need well-educated Jewish leaders. The other thing is to keep this once-a-year Beth Din, which is converting, or helping to go back to Judaism, a group of around 30 people from different cities in Spain a year – which is a big group.
“We are speaking of a process which is more than recovering Jewish identity, but also rebuilding it from scratch”.