I wanted to share with you this fascinating article. There are communities all over the world* experiencing something like this now that it's safer for Jewish practice. Enjoy the article and let me know what you think. - Judy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jewish because you want to be Jewish, because you feel it, because you
love it,” he said.
“Now I can’t live without it.”
* Read this related article about those seeking their Jewish past in Poland: