Colombian evangelical Christians convert to Judaism, embracing hidden past

BELLO, Colombia — They were committed evangelicals, devoted to Jesus Christ.

But what some here called a spark, an inescapable pull of their ancestors, led them in a different direction, to Judaism. There were the grandparents who wouldn’t eat pork, the fragments of a Jewish tongue from medieval Spain that spiced up the language, and puzzling family rituals such as the lighting of candles on Friday nights.

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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?”

Historical record

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.

But Bedoya wants to conduct a more extensive study, he said, explaining that there is likely to be more genetic evidence to show that an even larger percentage of residents have Jewish ancestry.

There is other evidence of a Jewish past here, including documentation compiled by historians and the homespun stories passed down from generation to generation.

Seeking discretion in forbidding mountains, the converted Jewish families here adopted surnames, many of them from the heavily Catholic Basque country of Spain, said Enrique Serrano, a professor at Bogota’s Rosario University who has studied colonial-era Spanish records. Names such as Uribe and Echeverry, Botero and Restrepo, were “bought,” Serrano said, along with certificates that instantly gave the converts a Catholic family history.

They also took on a form of Catholicism that was greatly ostentatious, he said, with each family in each town ensuring that at least one son became a priest.

Clues in customs

Still, families couldn’t fully let go of the past, said Memo Anjel, a professor at the Pontifical Bolivarian University in Medellin. He said Antioquia, more than other regions, is filled with towns with biblical names or those that come from the Holy Land, such as Belen and Jerico. Anjel said there is also a proliferation of given names that are unusual in other parts of Colombia.

“They are people who call themselves Catholic but have names like Isaac, Ruben, Moises, Israel, Gabriel,” Anjel said. “And then there are also the women’s names — Ruth, Lia, Clara, Martha, Rebecca.”

There are also tantalizing clues in the customs found in the countryside.

The light ponchos worn by farmers, which feature four untied corners that appear like tassels, are nearly indistinguishable from the prayer shawls worn by observant Jewish men. Some of the haciendas feature conspicuous baths in patios, which scholars say may have first been designed as mikvahs for ritual cleansings.

The residents of old homes have also discovered mezuzas. These are tiny scrolls inscribed with verses, which are put in cases that are attached to doorways, as is common in the homes of Jews the world over.

The converts here in Bello also speak of the unassuming rituals of older family members that they now believe demonstrate a Jewish heritage.

“Before I converted, when I began to study Judaism and Jewish traditions, I began to notice those things in my family,” said Ezra Rodriguez, 33, as his son, Yoetzel, 4, scampered about an apartment decorated with pictures of Orthodox Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

His grandfather always covered his head, even in church, saying that not doing so showed disrespect. Rodriguez also said his grandparents wore their finest clothing on Saturday, not Sunday.

And he recalled how as a boy he’d laugh at his grandfather’s given name — Luis Maria, which honors the Virgin Mary.

“He would come in close and say in a whisper, ‘We had to give ourselves such names,’ ” Rodriguez recounted.

Despite the belief that they have Jewish roots, the Bello community had to formally convert, with a rabbi from Miami, Moshe Ohana, arriving to officiate. The men underwent ritual circumcision, and the whole community began a long process of intense instruction.

The group now has a 120-year-old Torah, which Villegas said was written in Amsterdam. A kosher bakery opened, and kosher meat arrives from a butcher in the capital, Bogota. There is a Hebrew preschool, which operates every afternoon.

And the synagogue, which segregates men from women as is common for Orthodox Jews, is filled daily with the sounds of Hebrew songs and prayers.

“It’s about showing dedication, lots of dedication, to study the prayers, learn to read Hebrew,¨said Meyer Sanchez, 37. “You have to sacrifice other things, like time with your wife, time with your family, and other things you may like, video games and music.”

Among the most fervent leaders in the community is Shlomo Cano, 34, a supervisor in a motorcycle assembly plant.

Cano, whose name had been Rene, said his metamorphosis began little by little. A musician, he began to play Jewish music when his band had been invited to play for Medellin’s established Jewish community. He also went to Israel.

He has since delved into the Talmud and is fast expanding his Hebrew vocabulary to recite Hebrew prayers and sing Hebrew songs.

Cano keeps kosher — he and his wife, Galit, run the community’s kosher bakery — and his family prays daily at the synagogue.

“You’re Jewish because you want to be Jewish, because you feel it, because you love it,” he said. “Now I can’t live without it.”

 
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