Colombian evangelical Christians convert to Judaism, embracing hidden past
From The Washington Post, 23 November 2012
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.
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
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 year study that 14% of the men in Antioquia are genetically related
to the Kohanim, a priestly Jewish cast that is traced back three millennia to Moses’s
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
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
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.”