Monday, May 2, 2016

How a community of Columbian Catholics decided that they wanted to be Jews

René and Juan Carlos set out to convert their Colombian megachurch to Orthodox Judaism. This is what happened.

In 1998, the Colombian government reported that 3,800 young men had died violently in Bello during the previous decade. The finding prodded authorities to show that they were doing something to address the problem. A young psychologist went to the mayor with a proposal: Gather Bello’s worst and best and send them to the Negev Desert in Israel, far away from their violent environment. Then: instant resocialization. The mayor liked the idea and recruited youth leaders, among them René and the feuding bosses

René spent the first half of the trip as Fredy’s roommate, the second half as Marcelino’s. The group played soccer, drank beer, and talked about their lives while sitting by the light of a bonfire in the desert. By the end, Fredy and El Negro shook hands, and René immersed them in the Jordan River to signal their rebirth. Just before they headed home, the sicarios warned René and the others: If they told anyone what had been said by the fire, they’d be dead men. [...]

The same year René went to Israel, Juan Carlos and Puerta were invited to France to tour Pentecostal churches for a month. The French Pentecostal movement was small. Its leaders looked to Latin American pastors for inspiration. It was Juan Carlos’s first trip to the First World. Grateful and impressed, the French organizers presented the pastors with a ten-day trip to Israel.

The two arrived for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which evangelicals celebrate as the Feast of Tabernacles. They toured the major Christian sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Transfiguration. They were captivated by the landscape; the setting of the biblical tales came alive for them. But nothing impressed them more than a Feast of Tabernacles festival organized by Messianic Jews. [...

Juan Carlos was watching a new kind of evangelical in action. Messianic Jews were Christians who claimed a Jewish identity. They wore traditional religious Jewish garments, such as kippot, or skullcaps, and tzitzit, the knotted tassels of thread that symbolize the commandments. They called their pastors rabbis. This was Judaism with Jesus Christ in it. The Colombians were mesmerized. In their Pentecostal interpretation of the Bible, love for Israel and the Jews earned special blessings. They had read, for instance, in Numbers 6:27, “And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” The Messianic Jews were opening the door to a more profound connection with the Jewish people. [...]

His experience in Israel was all he could think about. What he had seen there felt closer to the truth. He slowly steered the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia toward Messianism, changing the title of pastor to rabbi, persuading men to wear kippot and tzitzit, emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus, the idea that Jesus had been a rabbi himself. The more he did this, though, the more he questioned the dogma of Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had been just a rabbi, then how could he be the son of God?

In early 2004, Juan Carlos returned to Jerusalem with Puerta. They stood by the Wailing Wall and searched for Orthodox rabbis who spoke Spanish. When they found a few, the pastors pummeled them with questions. How do you explain the Jewish Messiah? Why did the Jews not accept Jesus? How do you interpret the Messianic prophecies? Was the Messiah God? Was he man?

Juan Carlos was impressed by these rabbis and their answers. They were nothing like the pastors he had known. [...] Juan Carlos went back to Bello a converted man. Puerta agreed: Messianism was a meaningless hybrid. They had to embrace Judaism. If the congregation would not accept such a radical course, Juan Carlos was ready to leave and start over</ Puerta tried to slow him down, but Juan Carlos felt that waiting was dishonest. In the first assembly upon their return, before 3,000 faithful, he took responsibility for what he’d done. He had lied. He had exploited their needs and hopes. He had failed as a pastor. And the ultimate lie was Jesus himself: He was not a god; he was not the Messiah. Juan Carlos did not believe in him anymore. [...]Most of its members left to find a new church or abandoned religion altogether. Yet, to Juan Carlos’s surprise, 600 parishioners declared that they trusted him and would follow him into Judaism. Among them was René.

But how to be a Jew?

Juan Carlos had no idea. Neither did René.[...]With the sole guidance of books, Juan Carlos introduced the most critical changes to the congregation: Shabbat, kashrut (dietary restrictions), and circumcision. Members stopped working on Saturdays, though for months they continued to play music, take photographs, and pursue a number of activities that were prohibited. Pork and shellfish were banned; meat and milk were no longer mixed.[...]

It took four years, until 2009, to complete a process that was as much “Christian detoxification,” in René’s words, as it was Judaization. Most found it impossible. Of the 600 original aspiring Jews, only 200 remained. Garrandes introduced them to Moshe Ohana, an Orthodox Moroccan rabbi and a kabbalist also based in Miami. He was willing to convert them. Ohana asked the community to pay his fee in dollars for each conversion as well as cover his expenses. The congregants raised the money once again and paid, as they had paid for everything else: airplane tickets and lodging for rabbis, books, the Sefer Torah, kosher food, circumcisions. It turned out that becoming Jewish was expensive.  [...]

After two failed rabbis, Elad decided to do what he had always done when faced with a challenge: take on the job himself. The opportunity presented itself when David and Yitzhak Goldstein, two ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis, arrived at the synagogue in late 2012. They were canvassing Colombia in search of young men to bring to Israel as students for Diaspora Yeshiva, the Torah studies center they owned in Jerusalem. “My interest is to fill up Israel with Jewish people who identify themselves with the State of Israel as a Jewish state and Torah as their religion,” Yitzhak Goldstein says. He and his brother were looking at South America as a new “market.”

Becoming a rabbi usually requires five years and fluency in Hebrew, but the Goldsteins told Elad he would only have to attend for a minimum of two years and could study primarily in Spanish. Elad, who by then was married and the father of two children, replied he could not abandon his family and congregation for such a long period. He needed to complete everything in one year. The Goldsteins agreed. After ten months of little sleep, two meals a day, and sharing a small room with eight other students, Elad returned to Medellín in December 2013 with a rabbinical title.[...]

A decade into their Jewish lives, the converts of Bello were at the center of a larger story. Millions through­out Latin America have abandoned Catholicism, the faith of their parents. For almost 500 years, the church had maintained a monopoly on their souls. In the 1960s, 90 percent of the population was Catholic. That figure has now dropped to 69 percent. Most of the apostates moved toward evangelicalism, but a smaller, less visible cohort chose Judaism.

The Jews of Bello are the best organized, but they are not the only group that has transitioned from Catholicism to evangelicalism to Judaism. There are at least 60 such communities at different stages of conversion in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia. Even in Colombia, Bello is not unique. Thirty similar communities have emerged across the country. Some are just starting; others have been practicing for years.[...]

In his desire to immigrate, Shlomo found an ally in Shavei Israel, a controversial right-wing organization best known for sponsoring the migration to Israel of the Bnei Menashe, a group from northeast India who claim to be descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Shavei Israel is an advocate for a Greater Israel, the belief that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the State of Israel by divine right.

Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s founder and director, is an Orthodox Jew who was raised on New York’s Upper East Side and moved to Israel in 1995. Less than two years later, he became deputy communications director in Binyamin Netanyahu’s first administration. It was during his tenure that he discovered the Bnei Menashe and became the main champion of the dispersed Jews of the world — not only the alleged descendants of the lost tribes but all sorts of hidden Jews, former Jews, and wannabe Jews — helping several thousand to become Israelis.

He had no interest in Colombia until Shavei Israel’s educational director came back from touring Latin America in 2013 with news that tens of thousands from the region wanted to migrate. This got Freund’s attention. He sent a rabbi to Colombia to live in Bello and the other new communities. The rabbi spent months preparing a list of candidates for migration. Shlomo was at the top. He was one of the most articulate and experienced among the converts, and with his street smarts, the rabbi concluded, he would have no problem adapting to Israel. [...]

Shlomo was unaware of the complex efforts required to get him to Israel. The Chief Rabbinate’s intransigence had turned the Jewish Agency into Shavei Israel’s unexpected ally. The agency was considering bypassing the Chief Rabbinate’s authority and establishing an independent Orthodox rabbinical court to perform conversions overseas. In order to “test the waters,” as one person put it, the agency approved a handful of Orthodox overseas conversions not sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate. Shlomo and his family were part of the group. Not long after, the agency went ahead and approved the creation of the new Orthodox rabbinical court. Reacting as if war had been declared, the Chief Rabbinate made it known that the conversions would not be recognized. [...]


  1. There seems to be a number of such stories. Is there a Kabbalistic or other interpretation as to why they might want to convert to Judaism? I heard once a Chabad explanation, that the souls who convert are actually lost Jewish souls which are merely returning.

  2. Several sources say that geirim are those among the nations who wanted to accept the Torah when it was offered to the nations but were overruled by the majority of their people.

  3. I don't think we need kaballah to explain this phenomenon.

    There's no beit din for conversion in the whole South America, which causes a huge accumulation of potential converts getting together.

    In addition to that, the bnei anussim movement is growing a lot there with the aid of the internet at the same time that Christians are getting disgusted with their current leadership.

  4. Omg, I just heard about a community of Spanish Converts living in a little Jewish town in PA...
    So interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Maybe something to do with the concept of the Jews being gathered from "all four corners of the earth" -mei arba kanfos haaretz- ?
    So if they are Jewish souls trapped among the nations, they are "being gathered" before mashiach?
    Sounds some what kabalistic.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.