Guatemalan synagogue leader thanks local supporters


Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn (left) and Alvaro Orantes

Alvaro Orantes got to thank some of the Jewish Kansas Citians who have helped him to establish the Casa Hillel congregation in Guatemala with gifts of money and Judaica.

Orantes was in town this week visiting Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of the New Reform Temple, who helped Orantes to convert to Judaism and to establish the liberal congregation in Guatemala City a couple of years ago. Since then, with the rabbi’s encouragement and the help of an article in Reform Judaism magazine, the Guatemalan Jews have received donations of money, ritual objects, prayer books and, perhaps as important, moral support from Jews across North America.

“We are a poor group, but the wealth we have acquired is freedom of thinking; Judaism has given us freedom to think,” Orantes said, with the rabbi interpreting, in an interview this week at The Chronicle’s office. “And yet we need support, moral and political.”

Rabbi Cukierkorn explained that Orantes “feels he is interested in the spiritual area of religion, but he has much to learn in the political area; how to deal with people and institutions. He says he has a long way to go, and the people (Ed. note: congregants) have put many goals on him.”

Rabbi Cukierkorn explains that many would-be converts from Central and South America turn to him and other Spanish-speaking rabbis like him because the established Jewish communities in the southern hemisphere act like a “closed club” and are, by and large, not welcoming to newcomers with lower socio-economic status.

Thus, Casa Hillel is made up of converts like Orantes and others who believe they may be the descendants of conversos — that is, Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition.

Orantes was not visiting this week just to see Kansas City. Through the generosity of other benefactors, his daughter and five of her Guatemalan peers are attending a Jewish day camp in the Chicago area this summer. Orantes was to visit them, too.

He said he appreciates all the help he has received from U.S. Jews, and he welcomes more of it. Orantes is proud to be organizing Tikkun Olam projects in the name of the Jewish people and standing up against anti-Semitism.

“It’s important for every Jew in North American and Latin America for this synagogue to live and strengthen,” Orantes said, “because it seems that, in the future, there will be more political conflict in Latin America, and we have to be united.”

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