So, after a spiritual journey that began a decade ago, dozens of families that had once belonged to a fire-and-brimstone church became Jews, converting with the help of rabbis from Miami and Jerusalem. Though unusual in one of the most Catholic of nations, the small community in Bello joined a worldwide movement in which the descendants of Jews forced from Spain more than 500 years ago are discovering and embracing their Jewish heritage.
They have emerged in places as divergent as the American Southwest, Brazil and even India. In these mostly remote outposts, the so-called Anusim or Marranos, Jews from Spain who fled the Inquisition and converted to Christianity, had found refuge.
“There’s a real awakening that’s taking place,” said Michael Freund, who directs Shavei Israel, a Jerusalem-based group that helps new Jewish communities such as Bello’s. “The Jewish spark was never quenched, and these Anusim are really fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors in that they are taking back the Jewish identity that was so brutally stolen from their forefathers.”
This northwest state of Antioquia, with its high purple mountains, picturesque pueblos and fervent, almost mystical Catholicism, is surely one of the most unusual corners of the world for such Jewish stirrings.
For the families of Bello, the journey to Judaism began after the minister of a 3,000-member evangelical church, the Center for Integral Family Therapy, visited Israel in 1998 and 2003 and began to feel the pull of Judaism.
Juan Carlos Villegas, who has taken on the Hebrew name Elad, then told his flock that he planned to convert. Dozens joined him.
“These people had the capacity to say, yes, I’m open to finding the roots of my family,” said Villegas, 36, speaking in the community’s synagogue, a white-washed, two-story building on a street of rowhouses.
Villegas and the others said they felt history coursing through their veins as they explored the past and put together pieces of a puzzle that pointed to a Jewish ancestry.
“It was like our souls had memory,” he said. “It awakened in us a desire to learn more — who were we? Where were we from? Where are the roots of our families?”
With a void in the historical record, it’s hard to say for sure how the past unfolded for the converted Jews who arrived here centuries ago, establishing themselves as merchants and traders. But there is evidence that they played an important role in the founding of towns here and that their numbers were significant, which is largely unknown to most Colombians.
At the University of Antioquia, geneticist Gabriel Bedoya and his team of scientists found in a 2000 study that 14 percent of the men in Antioquia are genetically related to the Kohanim, a priestly Jewish cast that is traced back three millennia to Moses’s brother, Aaron.