Jews in the Land of Disney: Dr. Joseph Berrios' long road to self-discovery


Joseph Berrios, Ph.D.

This is the fourth article in a four-part series about the Puerto Rican Jews living in Central Florida and their history.

In an attempt to atone for the Inquisition, Spain has been offering citizenship to the ancestors of the Jews whose families were expelled in the 15th century. In 2015 and by unanimous vote, the Spanish Parliament sought to make amends. The law invited Sephardim Jews who trace their roots to Spain the ability to return. The law stated that after "centuries of estrangement," Spain would welcome "Sephardic communities to reencounter their origins, opening forever the doors to their homeland."

Although technically Dr. Joseph Berrios is an American citizen, this law would allow him to have dual citizenship. He hired the services of a genealogist acceptable to the government of Spain. The cost was $625. Berrios hired him in August 2019 and found out the results in March 2020. He discovered that his great- great-great-grandfather and -grandmother had fled from Spain in the late 15th century.

Berrios was born in San Juan. He grew up in a Christian home. His father was a non-practicing Catholic and his mother was Protestant. "My father, who was a medical sales representative, met my mother, who was a nurse, at work. Because both of my parents worked so much, I was raised by my grandparents on my mother's side of the family."

"My grandparents were Americans living on the Island when I was growing up. Their last name was Zaborsky. I remember my grandfather used to say his prayers three times a day. He had a Hungarian background, and I thought that the language he was speaking was Hungarian when he prayed. I never knew it was Hebrew until later in my life. He never specifically taught me about Judaism. The only thing he used to say to me was 'We're God's chosen people,' and he taught me that as individuals our actions should always be to 'repair the world.'" He passed away when I was 19 years old." Berrios said.

Berrios grandfather on his father's side died when he was young, and he had little memories of his grandmother. He found out that his ancestors on that side of the family fled Spain during the Inquisition, but they didn't go directly to Puerto Rico, rather, they went to Bolivia, South America, before coming to the island. Another part of that side of his family fled to Mexico. He just discovered this, and is currently doing research to see if he can find them. He hopes to reconnect with his lost relatives.

Berrios' interest in his spirituality was sparked when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. "I wanted to become a naval aviator but at one point I became a religious program specialist, which sparked my spiritual curiosity. I ended up receiving an officer commission in 1996. I was designated as an aerospace engineering duty officer and earned the coveted Wings of Gold as a naval flight officer," Berrios said. He served in the Gulf War in 2014-2015 in support of the Global War on Terrorism. After 29 years in the military service, he retired as a lieutenant commander.

During this time, he went to school and obtained his bachelor's degree in computer science from Inter American University of Puerto Rico. He then received his master's degree from the University of South Florida. Eventually he received his Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Today, he works as a professor at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, Orlando Campus, teaching computer science and computer engineering. The Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico is the largest Hispanic-serving engineering school in the United States.

Raised as a Christian, Berrios had issues with many of the concepts of Christianity. "Some things just didn't make sense to me," he said. He was compelled during his late 30s to find answers, and he began his quest. He enrolled in the Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, to see if he could learn about his Christianity, to try to understand and reconcile the concepts that he didn't understand. He also took classes in Hebrew at the seminary. After a while, he was still getting conflicting answers.

He thought the next logical step in his spiritual journey would be to explore Messianic Judaism. "I joined Congregation Gesher Shalom, a Messianic congregation in Orlando. After a while I knew this just didn't make any sense to me."

Berrios then joined the Congregation of Reform Judaism and met Rabbi Engel and Cantor Jacqueline Rawiszer. He continued his Jewish education and realized that Judaism is what made sense to him, both logically and spiritually.

Rabbi Engel referred Berrios to Rabbi Rick Sherwin, who performed his conversion. It was a long conversion process, beginning in 2014, but he was sure after he traveled down this long road to self-discovery. His conversion was finalized in 2017.

Berrios' journey continues as he is working to become a rabbi. He is currently enrolled in the distance learning programs at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y., and occasionally travels to the campus. The school is a pluralistic Jewish seminary. His goal is to gain his ordination within five years.

"I'm now a member of Temple Israel in Winter Springs, Florida. Rabbi Neely has sponsored me, mentoring me through the whole process of becoming a rabbi," Berrios said.

"I've grown up in Puerto Rico, in a family of marranos, who fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century. My spiritual journey began when I was a Christian growing up in Puerto Rico, to going to a Christian seminary, to joining a Messianic Jewish congregation, to a reform Jewish congregation, to now a conservative congregation. And now I'm studying to become a rabbi. It's been a long and wonderful journey."

Joseph Berrios (in fatigues) in his naval command unit.

Over 500 years ago the Spanish Monarchy and the Catholic Church tried to eradicate Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and all Spanish territories. The advances in telecommunication technology have helped shed light on this dark past and have brought a rediscovery of Sephardic Jewish culture, heritage and identity here in Central Florida and around the world.


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