With the Caribbean as their ritual bath, Colombian converts flow to Judaism
As evening begins in the Colombian coastal city of Santa Marta, the sun descends into the Caribbean Sea, captivating residents with its picturesque tableau. In an area noted for its sunsets, the sun is now rising on two recent Jewish congregations made up entirely of converts.
They are Shirat Hayyam in Santa Marta, and Javura Nahariyah in the river port city of Barranquilla, a two-hour drive away. The congregations are studying Torah, meeting regularly for Shabbat and overcoming logistical challenges such as the current absence of a synagogue space for Shirat Hayyam.
“Starting a community is not easy, especially if you start from zero,” Adal Alfaro, president of Shirat Hayyam, told The Times of Israel in Spanish. “The desire to have a community, and all of our endeavors have helped us find all the elements and materials needed for services.”
Tadashi Barros, president of Nahariyah, echoed these sentiments.
Juan Mejia, the rabbi of both congregations, lives in Oklahoma City and works for Bechol Lashon, “In Every Tongue,” a San Francisco-based organization that supports what he calls “emerging communities” across the globe.
“It’s a Jewish community made up in its majority, or entirety, of converts,” said Mejia.
Mejia, who is himself a Colombian convert, tries to visit the emerging communities in Santa Marta and Barranquilla as much as possible.
“When I come, they pool resources,” he said. “I spend some time in [both] Santa Marta and Baranquilla. Some of them have developed friendships. [We’ll be at] somebody’s country house, do joint activities.”
Even when he is not in Colombia, he said, “our day-to-day interaction is virtual, and very intense, extremely intense.”
Of the 40 people in the synagogue, 30 were waiting to convert
Santa Marta and Barranquilla depict the increasing interest in Judaism in Colombia — a country that was once, in Mejia’s words, “99.9% Catholic” — as well as in Latin America in general.
‘There are an increasing number of Latinos who are looking for Judaism’
“There are an increasing number of Latinos in Latin America and [the United] States, Colombia, Mexico, who are looking for Judaism,” Mejia said. “They are interested in Judaism. They are not getting anywhere. They have no access to Jewish communities, or there is no Jewish community.”
At Barranquilla, the synagogue is often full on Shabbat, and Barros recently managed the logistics of moving into a new prayer space. And three young musicians of Nahariyah have created a beautiful version of “Adon Olam” performed in the local “vallenato” northern Colombian style, similar to calypso, using instruments such as tambors (drums), a guacharaca (percussion) and an accordion.
Interestingly, Santa Marta and Barranquilla are the only emerging communities in Colombia that have converted to Conservative Judaism and not Orthodox Judaism.
“They are all egalitarian communities,” said Mejia, a Conservative rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. “That was one of my conditions.”
He said he is a “great, fierce believer in gender equality” and “left my people resonating with the message.”
‘They are all egalitarian communities, that was one of my conditions’
This summer, Rabbi Andrew Sacks, Jerusalem-based director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, met both congregations during a visit to Colombia.
At Barranquilla, “the synagogue was absolutely full for each service,” he said. “They all know how to daven [pray]. There were 40 people in the synagogue, 30 of whom are waiting to be converted. Quite a few of the leaders could read Torah. I think [the community] would be the envy of virtually every rabbi, a community where almost everybody comes to shul.”
“I’m blessed with really good lay leaders [in the] day-to-day running of the synagogue, the services on Shabbat, the quality of the chazzanut, really talented people, with musical expertise,” Mejia said. “I’m trying to get these communities organized, develop leadership, train them directly or through programs in Israel and Argentina to get them included in the World Conservative Movement — Masortis, recognized by the Jewish world at large.”
In 2010, Mejia was a rabbinical student at JTS when he started teaching online classes in Spanish about Judaism. He said he saw himself having “a role as an educator for the increasing [number of] people in Latin America opting for Judaism.”
‘They said, “We want you to become a rabbi.” I said, I’m not ordained yet. Let’s just learn’
And, he said, “There was a group from Santa Marta that was really, really dedicated. Every class, they were asking questions, reaching out to me, before I became a rabbi. They said, ‘We want you to become a rabbi.’ I said, ‘I’m not ordained yet. Let’s just learn.’”
Most were Catholic and represented the mestizo background of Colombians descended from intermarriages between the Spanish colonists and the indigenous population.
Mejia said, “They were tech-savvy and had access to the Internet. Almost every single emerging community in Latin America started out as a forum online, ‘another guy [who knows] another guy.’ The Internet allowed them to create a virtual community.”
Alfaro, the eventual congregation president, was part of this virtual community exploring Judaism. “At first, it was only with the help of the Internet,” he said, “later with various people I knew and finally with Rabbi Juan Mejia.”
‘You can choose another religion’
Alfaro was born in a practicing Catholic household, but said, “Christianity did not answer many questions that I had. Since I was a child, I liked studying different religions and immersing myself a little in the origins of Christianity and its different streams.”
He said he compared the New Testament with the Old Testament “and after finding contradictions in various texts, I decided to study Judaism.” There, he found answers to many of his spiritual questions and concerns, and decided to initiate the process of conversion.
“The families who shaped our kehila [congregation] share an origin similar to mine,” he said. “That is to say, they come from Catholic families where Christianity did not answer their questions and their spiritual needs. This situation brought them to begin studying and exploring new options, and finally in Judaism, they found a place to grow and develop spiritually.”
‘Everyone in Colombia has a cousin, a brother, a co-worker, a boss, who’s not Catholic. It’s a game-changer’
Mejia credits another recent development for this spiritual searching: the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America.
“Right now in Colombia, there’s something they’ve never had before, religious diversity,” he said. “Everyone in Colombia has a cousin, a brother, a co-worker, a boss, who’s not Catholic. It’s a game-changer. It’s never been there before. There’s a sense of inquiry and openness. If you don’t have to be Catholic, you can choose another religion.”
And, Mejia said, “There’s room for people to explore Judaism. In my case, there’s a very direct line. [People will] start Catholic, become Protestant, start studying the Bible seriously. They ask, ‘Who has a more original [meaning authentic] version of the Bible, the truth? Jews.’ A lot of people take the extra step of Messianic movements.”
Mejia said, “Many of my students take an intermediate step between Catholicism and Judaism, usually some sort of investigation of Protestantism or Messianic before opting for Judaism.” But, he said that thanks in part to the Internet, it is “easier to find more mainstream Jewish choices.”
Mejia grew up Catholic in Colombia, where he received the First Communion — one of Catholicism’s seven sacraments. When he learned of Jewish family roots he decided to convert, and a visit to Israel in his 20s — along with the master’s degree he earned there — strengthened this desire.
However, he said that while he is familiar with the narrative of the Anusim, the descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity, he is also increasingly aware of an interest in Judaism among people who do not have a Jewish family background.
The group from Santa Marta was so interested that its members welcomed Mejia for a four-day Shabbaton in January 2010.
“I fell in love,” he said. “They were amazing, really diligent. I started working on really building a community, learning towards a community.”
They subsequently participated in online learning sessions, often multiple times each week. They developed a physical community, too.
A group conversion in 2012
The group rented out a house that became their synagogue for a time. Mejia said, “Friday night on Shabbat, they were, de facto, the only synagogue in town” for the Israeli backpackers and American tourists who visited the tourist hub.
“In the beginning, it was very informal,” Mejia said. “They were meeting in homes, people’s living rooms. They got big enough that they would need to rent out [space].”
However, he said, “nobody there was yet Jewish.”
That changed in 2012, when Mejia returned to Santa Marta and led a Beit Din that held a conversion of 20 members.
The city had previously had no synagogue and few Jewish families, Mejia said.
‘Friday night on Shabbat, they were, de facto, the only synagogue in town, but nobody there was yet Jewish’
He converted the first handful of people in the synagogue office, presiding over a Beit Din of “mainly Argentine rabbis and colleagues,” he said, noting that “Argentines, as far as Conservatives, are the most influential in Latin America.”
Soon, Santa Marta would not be Mejia’s only congregation in the area. “Some people in Barranquilla had heard of the community in Santa Marta,” Mejia said. “They said, ‘There’s a place in Santa Marta that looks solid.’”
In some ways, the people in Barranquilla shared similar reasons for their interest in Judaism and spiritual transformation.
“Judaism provides me with a renovation of my thinking and perception of how we live at the service of the creator,” community member Manuel Palacio, 47, said in Spanish.
However, unlike Santa Marta, Barranquilla had a longstanding Jewish community.
Several members of Nahariyah, interviewed in Spanish, mentioned practicing Judaism earlier in life, or even identifying as Jews since birth.
“The decision to convert to Judaism came from many factors, but mainly it was that over the years, customs such as Shabbat and holidays brought my family together since childhood,” said 24-year-old Barros, who works as a software engineer.
Other members of Barros’ family eventually stopped their Jewish practices, but for himself, Barros said, “the greatest percentage of beautiful memories I have are related to a Jewish identity, and after I grew older, I felt that a direct relationship to God is most consistent.”
Community member Pablo Rodriguez, 21, grew up practicing Judaism after his mother “decided to be part of the Jewish people” many years ago, he said.
“It is the only [faith] that I have known and practiced from childhood up to now,” he said. “The first teaching that it provided me with was the importance of family. And the importance of knowing Hashem and practicing Torah.”
‘The greatest percentage of beautiful memories I have are related to a Jewish identity’
But, he said, “being Jewish is, first of all, being part of a people and community, and then a style of life. For me, Judaism is not precisely a religion.”
Barros said that 20 years ago, “a large amount of people in my city felt a sort of connection to the Jewish people. While we did not know the subject 100%, we did know that the information came from interested parties and descendants of Jewish families.”
The Barranquilla community was initially “a satellite of Santa Marta,” Mejia said, “but very quickly, Barranquilla, which is a bigger city, with job opportunities and businesses, grew quite large, larger than Santa Marta.”
And in 2014, Mejia returned for another Beit Din to convert people from both Santa Marta and Barranquilla.
Successful conversions had been a long time coming, and involved what Alfaro delicately described as “several unsuccessful attempts to organize ourselves as a community, until finally we contacted Rabbi Juan Mejia.”
Mejia said both congregations had previously been swindled by rabbis from abroad, including the US and Israel, who disappeared after receiving money.
“The people in Santa Marta had been burned,” Sacks added, “but they kept persisting. The consensus [on Mejia] was that ‘somebody actually truly understands our Judaism.’ Some believed that they come from Jewish roots.”
“Juan is one of the few rabbis who does it not only because it is important, but does it right… Juan is not willing to work with a group and do conversions unless there’s an infrastructure. He will not leave them high and dry,” Sacks said. “The majority have converted, but a significant number are not ready. He teaches davening skills with a Skype class once a week and individual instruction as well. He’s building a community where people can live Jewishly. Only then will he perform the conversion.”
For some members, conversion created some family tensions.
‘They accepted my kashrut and in the same way, I accepted that they did not eat kosher foods’
Barranquilla community member Jessica Polo Mutis, 21, said in Spanish that it was difficult for her family, particularly her mother, to comprehend her change in religious beliefs and practices — including her decision to keep kosher.
However, she said, “they accepted my kashrut and in the same way, I accepted that they did not eat kosher foods. I think that it is a question of understanding people’s thoughts and what aspects have importance for them.”
Fresh Jewish sprigs from old roots
With the conversions, the communities made a formal link with the established congregations in Colombia, a nation of 3,000 Jews, with a rich Jewish history.
The first Jews of Colombia are reported to have come from Spain in the 16th century, as nominally practicing Catholics who followed their original faith in secret in the New World. Many members of this community were massacred in 1636.
A breeze of freedom began appearing at the end of the 18th century, when Jews who had arrived from Jamaica and Curacao began practicing publicly, despite a prohibition against it. The breeze became a whirlwind in the early 19th century, as Colombia won independence from Spain under Simon Bolivar, “The Liberator (El Libertador),” whose tomb is located near Santa Marta.
In the new nation, Barranquilla developed as a port of entry, helped by its location along the banks of the Magdalena River and by its community of Jews from Curacao.
Barranquilla is home to the oldest congregation and the oldest Jewish cemetery in Colombia. One member, Ernesto Cortissoz, founded the first airline in Colombia in 1919 (he died in one of the first plane crashes in the country in 1924) and Cortissoz International Airport in the Barranquilla metropolitan area is named in his honor.
Those unfamiliar with the city might recognize several celebrities born there, including Shakira (who mentions it in her hit song “Hips Don’t Lie”) and Sofia Vergara. The city is also referenced in the “Barranquilla Group” of writers founded by Gabriela Garcia Marquez and fictionalized in his book “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Barranquilla is diverse, being home to descendants of Middle Eastern immigrants from Syria and Lebanon (including Shakira). Colombia in general served as a refuge for Sephardic Jews fleeing Europe in the wake of World War I, and for Ashkenazi Jews escaping from Hitler after he became chancellor of Nazi Germany in 1933.
Today, there are about nine established synagogues, including the Barranquilla congregations of the Orthodox Sinagoga Shaare Sedek and the Sinagoga Bet-El, a former Masorti synagogue that has become Orthodox.
Mejia estimated that Colombia’s Jewish population would double if emerging communities were counted, but there are sometimes uneasy relations between established and emerging communities.
“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Mejia said. “Some say they all should move to Israel. Others say, ‘No, they only want to move to Israel.’ These are divisive topics in the Colombian Jewish community.”
He said the members of his two congregations are Caribbean Jews — neither Ashkenazim nor Sephardim — who must develop their own identity.
He did note that “they resonate strongly with Sephardic traces. In Ladino, they can read, sing and understand, make a cultural connection.”
But, he said, “They have to create Caribbean Judaism that fits them, in climate, gastronomy, music. It can enrich the Jewish people.”
‘If any Jews come to the city, it’s because of the beach’
The Hebrew names of each congregation reflect their connections to their community.
“Shirat Hayam,” Song of the Sea, evokes the “Playa Mikveh” beach — which Mejia describes as “a happy, joyous, beautiful beach. If any Jews come to the city, it’s because of the beach.”
He encourages the community to “embrace it, welcoming guests. A ton of Jews pass through looking for the beaches. It’s a resource, a beach, the last undeveloped piece of land in the Greater Santa Marta area, between two huge resorts… immersions for everyone. It’s just gorgeous, absolutely beautiful blue water, warm, the sun rising out of the water, truly beautiful to see.”
“Nahariyah” refers to the Magdalena River, “the river of God,” that joins the Caribbean Sea at Barranquilla, transforming the port into the gateway to Colombia, Mejia said. “Each name has its strengths.”
‘You will get 80 people for Shabbat, most know how to pray’
Currently, there are eight individual members of Shirat Hayyam, and 30 families in a conversion program at Javurat Nahariyah.
“You will get 80 people for Shabbat,” Mejia said. “Most know how to pray.”
Both congregations use a Sephardic siddur that Mejia created as a free online project in 2007. The siddur has been translated and transliterated. The communities have just two chumashim — the Five Books of Moses. They have borrowed one Torah scroll for holidays from an Orthodox rabbi in Barranquilla, and Sacks brought another.
“When we read Torah, I resurrected the ancient practice of translating simultaneously,” Mejia said. “One verse was in Hebrew, the reader pauses, and someone else [translates] in Spanish.”
In Barranquilla, Mejia said, “Kabbalat Shabbat and arvit [Friday evening prayers] is a pretty long day. They like to eat together. For Saturday morning shacharit, if there’s a minyan [prayer quorum], they read Torah, and quite often, they will stay in the synagogue all day, hang out, the kids are playing.”
“Santa Marta is a smaller community,” he said, “and there’s a real estate crisis. It’s a tourist town, people buy apartments they do not use, it’s expensive real estate. Shirat Hayyam is floating around, their synagogue was rented out to people who could pay more, they’re back in living rooms, and only on Friday nights.”
Sacks described Santa Marta as “a little bit of an up-and-down community. They don’t have a permanent building. They are a little bit more isolated.”
While Santa Marta may not receive many Jewish guests on Shabbat, Sacks said the congregation is being helped by a visiting Israeli marine biologist.
“He does not come from an observant background but was attracted to the group, they were attracted to him, and he’s been helpful,” Sacks said. “They go out of their way to make sure the children know Israeli and Jewish songs as best as possible considering their limited resources.”
And, Mejia said, the Santa Marta congregation has met “every single Friday night the past seven years, without interruption. All the holidays, there’s always some Israeli and American guests in town. They’re here to stay, not a passing fad.”
‘It’s a normal synagogue, the only unique thing is they’re 100% converts’
He added, “It’s a normal synagogue, the only unique thing is they’re 100% converts.”
The congregants come from diverse professional and personal backgrounds.
“In Barranquilla, we have people who work for the government, who have good government jobs, and people who are just getting by,” Mejia said. “We have a boxer, he’s a very interesting story. His father is Jewish, he served in the Israeli army, he made aliyah, he came back and had a rough time, he’s an MMA fighter… We have homemakers, bus drivers, doctors.”
Off to the Holy Land?
As emerging communities in Colombia embrace Judaism, some are leaving for Israel. An April 28 article by Graciela Mochkofsky in California Sunday magazine chronicled the converted Jews of Bello, a suburb of Medellin, once the most dangerous city in the world (ahead of Beirut) during the days of Escobar.
The Bello community followed the path Mejia described, from Catholicism to Pentecostalism to Judaism. One community member, Rene Cano, changed his name to Shlomo Caro and immigrated to Israel last year, with help from Shavei Israel, an organization that works in nine countries to provide assistance to a variety of different communities such as the Bnei Menashe of India and the Bnei Anousim (or “hidden Jews”) of Spain, Portugal and South America. Caro and his family now live in Karmiel.
Asked whether he thought there were members of the Santa Marta and Barranquilla communities who want to make aliyah, Sacks said, “I think there are. Clearly, some wish, not in order to escape, or get out of their commitment. There is very strong pro-Israel Zionist feeling.”
However, he said, “it is only a portion at this point.”
He said that some members of the Barranquilla community view economic opportunities in their hometown as limited, and may wish to leave not only for Israel, but also for Bogota, elsewhere in Latin America and the US “if they’re able to.” But, “a disproportionate number are interested in aliyah.”
However, Sacks said, there might be obstacles for potential olim from Santa Marta and Barranquilla.
“By and large our converts, in most of the world, are treated in the same manner as those who have had Orthodox conversions,” he said. “But those from ‘emerging communities’ seem to be held to a different standard.”
Next week, representatives of the Interior Ministry and the Jewish Agency will meet regarding an aliyah request “of several families from Venezuela who are in difficult straits in their country,” Sacks said. “I have no doubt as to their sincerity and the legitimacy of their conversions.”
However, he added, “If the community does not have a rabbi living in the community the Interior Ministry will balk.”
He also said that an emerging community of Jews in Uganda does have a Masorti rabbi living in the community, but that “I had to fight for three years and involve the office of the Prime Minister, to get approval for student visas to enable five young Ugandan Jews to study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.”
And, he said, there are general obstacles that can arise.
“So too, if they feel people may have converted simply to make aliyah,” he said. “Or, if others have not previously made aliyah from the community. Or, if the Beit Din was held in another city. This is often not the case for Orthodox converts. In fact, some immigrants from emerging communities have been converted by rabbis sent to Latin America by the official Israeli Rabbinate. If it has the Orthodox stamp of approval, the standard is far more relaxed.”
The next steps for the congregations of Santa Marta and Barranquilla might be hard to predict. It cannot be said when Shirat Hayyam will find a new communal prayer space, or when the families of Javurat Nahariyah undergoing the conversion process will complete their program. And yet the framework seems to have been established for the future success of these communities — founded on faith, guided by a caring rabbi and nourished by their own members.
“You need to tune this tradition of Judaism to make it fit,” Mejia said of his congregations. “Otherwise it will not be bequeathed to their children or grandchildren.”