Nothing clears up the ambiguity of Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera’s religion like having a bar mitzvah.
Yep, at the not-so-tender age of 42, Lopez-Cantera — who once described himself in his House biography as Catholic — had a bar mitzvah at the western wall in Jerusalem last week while traveling with the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association. The Jewish rite of passage into adulthood typically occurs at age 13, but it’s not unheard of for adults to have the ceremony if they didn’t have one as a teenager.
Lopez-Cantera’s wife, Renee, and mother are Jewish, while his father is Catholic.
Lopez-Cantera, a candidate for the U.S. Senate this fall, brought up his bar mitzvah with the Miami Herald during a brief interview Monday after an event at the Jewish Community Center in Davie, where Gov. Rick Scott held a ceremonial bill signing to create a Holocaust Memorial in Tallahassee.
Lopez-Cantera told the crowd at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie that he had recently visited Israel including Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.
After the event, the Herald asked Lopez-Cantera about how he identifies religiously.
“I’m Jewish,” he replied, and then said that he had a bar mitzvah while in Jerusalem.
“It definitely wasn’t planned” in advance, he said. He noted that his family wasn’t on the tour of Israel with him.
But he said the opportunity “presented itself” while he was in Israel so he had the bar mitzvah with a Chabad rabbi. Typically those preparing for their bar mitzvah study for months with a tutor and a rabbi to learn how to chant a portion in Hebrew from the Torah and lead a service. But this was more of a quickie bar mitzvah.
Lopez-Cantera said he didn’t read from the Torah but did recite a prayer.
“It was a moving experience,” he said.
It’s not surprising that a Chabad rabbi would perform a spontaneous bar mitzvah for Lopez-Cantera. Chabad, or Chabad-Lubavitch, is an Orthodox Jewish movement and is known for outreach to Jews who express interest but may be unaffiliated or didn’t always have a strong Jewish identity.
A Chabad news service wrote that in 2014, Tallahassee Shliach Rabbi Schneur Oirechman “has been visiting Lopez-Cantera for years, having helped him put on Tefillin during his term as Republican Majority Leader.” (That refers to the pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls that men wear.)
But the politician didn’t always wear his Judaism on his sleeve. Lopez-Cantera’s religion has been a bit of a mystery over the years.
In his official state House biography in 2010, Lopez-Cantera listed himself as Catholic. In a clerk's manual in 2012, he listed no religious affiliation.
In 2014 when he was named lieutenant governor, the Herald asked Lopez-Cantera about his religion. His reply: “I'd rather not be defined that way. … We're very spiritual.” (According to Jewish law, he is Jewish because his mother is.)
But he has talked more openly about being Jewish this year.
“Now, you may not have known this from my name, Lopez-Cantera, but I'm Jewish,” he said in Boca Raton earlier this month at a ceremonial signing of a bill that prohibits the state from doing business with companies that favor a boycott of Israel. “My father came from Cuba but he married a nice Jewish girl in Miami, and I followed suit and married a nice Jewish girl in Miami as well. … We keep a Jewish household and are raising our daughters Jewish.”
Shoring up his Jewish cred may not get Lopez-Cantera very far at the ballot box, because the vast majority of Jewish voters are Democrats (although the Orthodox lean right). But it does give him one way to differentiate himself in a crowded GOP primary that includes U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, wealthy businessman Carlos Beruff and entrepreneur Todd Wilcox. (Jolly also recently visited Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)
On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who is Jewish, faces U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.
The Senate primary is Aug. 30, but some will start voting by mail in July.