Jews in the Land of Disney: For Charlene Neely, digging into genealogy uncovered her rich Jewish heritage


November 20, 2020

Charlene Neely (far right) with her sons, Joshua (l) and Seth, the day her mother returned after the Bet Din.

One side of Charlene Neely's family settled in New Mexico in 1590. The other side settled there in 1680.

"Both grandparents were Roman Catholic and although we were Hispanic, we didn't have the physical characteristics of what was common in the Southwest. We spoke Spanish, but I had cousins who had blue eyes and blonde hair, or green eyes with auburn hair," said Neely, mother of Rabbi Joshua Neely.

Her grandmother, Mary Teresa Gallegos, was a practicing Roman Catholic, who went to church frequently, however, Neely remembers that she lit candles on Friday evenings in her bedroom. Her family didn't eat pork, which she didn't realize meant anything until later in her life.

Her father's side of the family, the Mitchells, were Protestants from Cornwall, England. They moved to Los Angeles in 1928.

"My mother married my father in 1940 when she was 15. My father was 19. They married during Lent, which was frowned upon, and they became persona non-grata within the Catholic Church. My parents weren't very religious, but my mother was spiritual. She had a strong belief in God; however, I don't remember her ever talking about Jesus, and we never had a cross in our home," Neely recalled.

Neely grew up in Southern California, always living near the ocean. At one point her parents lived on a 45-foot cabin cruiser. Because of their location on the dock, Neely was able to go to the good schools because the affluent people lived near the ocean. "We fished and enjoyed growing up on the water."

Neely was fiercely independent as a young woman and had a curiosity that led her at the young age of 13, to look for a religion that made sense. She visited a myriad of churches, however nothing clicked. In 1960 she asked her Jewish friend if she would take her to her synagogue.

"That first time was when I realized that this is where I belonged. It just made sense to me. When I went home after that visit, I discussed it with my parents who were very supportive."

She began the conversion process when she was 15. When she told her Catholic grandmother about her decision, her grandmother replied, "If that's your choice, then you should wear it every day. In fact, I believe that I'm Jewish too,"

Neely completed her conversion after finishing tenth grade. She joined Hadassah and became very active. "At that time Junior Hadassah offered a leadership program which helped me tremendously. I had some very strong Jewish mentors in that program."

In 1963, Neely had the opportunity to go to Israel for the first time where she stayed for three months. "It had a profound impact on my life. It was there that I felt accepted into the broader Jewish community. At that point, I knew I had come home."

Neely attended San Diego State University where she got her degree in history with a minor in geography. During this time, she stayed actively involved in Hadassah, frequently flying back and forth to the east coast attending conventions. She's proud to say that she's a life member.

In 1966, as a junior leader in her early 20s, Neely took another trip to Israel and returned a year later as a volunteer to help during the Six-day War. At that time, when the youth were in the Israeli armed forces there was a call out for young people to come to Israel to help with civilian jobs that were left open. Neely worked on a kibbutz in Northern Israel.

"It was a very crucial time and we knew that if the war didn't go well, we could potentially be on the front lines," Neely shared.

There were 40 volunteers on the kibbutz, the majority of them from France. She and her two Dutch roommates had the same feeling: "We were proud of the fact that when our children asked us, 'Where were you when the Jewish people needed you?' we could say we were there!"

Neely had met her husband in grad school a year before she went to Israel. Upon returning home, Neely married him and had two sons. The marriage lasted seven years. After the divorce, it forced her to raise her children independently, and she had to make a living on her own.

She became assistant director of education for her reform temple, Temple Beth Israel, where she worked for 22 years. She eventually became director and she organized and founded their Jewish Day School.

An opportunity arose to become director of education with a conservative temple, Temple Beth El, in San Diego. She worked there for over seven years.

Neely's son, Joshua, had a genealogy project when he was a junior in high school. She traveled with him to the National Archives in Laguna Niguel, Calif. At that time there were five repositories in the country all underground, just in case there was a nuclear conflict. They didn't have computers just microfiche machines.

"My time there is when things in my life became illuminated. There were patterns I saw, obvious clues like many Jewish surnames and first names. I also learned that it was common for cousins to marry cousins. There were no 'Juans' or 'Jesus' in our family tree. It was obvious that we had Jewish ancestry."

Neely was persistent after her visit to the archives. "I went back 1,000 years into our family history. I was surprised to find out that we're direct descendants of Rashi, the French rabbi who authored comprehensive commentary on the Talmud and Tanakh."

One of the most startling findings was 19 generations ago, her family was linked to Solomon ha-Levi, a rabbi living in Burgos, Spain, during the 1391 forced-conversions before the inquisition. This rabbi offered to convert his family and Jews living in town to Catholicism in return for the Catholic Church to bring him in as the rank of a Bishop. This decision trapped the rest of the family and countless others into living double lives as anusim.

"My mother formally became Jewish when she was 75 years old," Neely said after disclosing the information about their family history to her. "She wanted to be buried in the Jewish cemetery, so we went to a Bet Din, where I presented her case in front of three rabbis. We proved that her ancestors were forcibly converted over 500 years ago. She went to the mikvah and today is buried in the oldest Jewish cemetery in San Diego."

Neely is now living in Orlando, enjoying being close to her son, Josh Neely and his family. Since moving here, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she had said that fighting the disease has taken up so much of her time.

Charlene Neely with her grandchildren.

As her soul pines for the ocean, she has one wish: to take her grandchildren to the ocean to fish.


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