Latin American Jews reluctant to accept new converts

A convert shares his struggles

Latin America is notorious for it’s anti-Semitism; foreign-born U.S. Latinos are twice as likely to harbor “hardcore anti-Semitic beliefs” than their American-born counterparts. Hugo Chavez, no friend of the Jews.

And yet, there is a movement afoot in Latin America. Christians are increasingly converting to Judaism.

And yet, the Jewish community sees something wrong with this.

From JTA:

Luis Alberto Prieto Vargas appears to be a Jew.

He wears a kippah, he introduces himself as Jewish, and two years ago Vargas, a Christian by birth, underwent a conversion ceremony to Judaism following several years of religious study.

It all began seven years ago when Vargas, now 51, became part of a movement in Bogota, Colombia, of religious seekers.

“As I did, most of the people involved came from Christian roots,” he said. “And we found in Judaism an answer to our inquiries.”

But Vargas’ conversion hit a key snag: Jews.

First, Orthodox Jews in Colombia refused to accept Vargas and 200 or so others as would-be Jews, vehemently disavowing association with them and refusing them access to the community’s mikvahs for conversion.

The group, which calls itself Maim Haim – Hebrew for “living waters” – turned to religious authorities in Israel for training and, they hoped, eventual conversion, but it was stymied when Colombia’s Orthodox Jewish leadership contacted rabbinic authorities in Israel and warned them against accepting the would-be converts.

Main Haim eventually found a rabbi in Israel willing to teach its members, and in 2007 the rabbi and two colleagues convened a Jewish religious court, or bet din, and converted 104 of them including Vargas.

Still, many Jewish institutions in Colombia refuse to accept them as members.

The plight of Main Haim underscores the difficulty many converts and would-be converts to Judaism have in Latin America, particularly those who convert as a group or come to Judaism on their own rather than in concert with local Jewish authorities.

Local Jewish communities are concerned about being overwhelmed by mass converts, and many have questions about whether the converts’ motivations are genuine. In Israel and in Colombia, the converts often are viewed skeptically – as émigrés-in-waiting more interested in obtaining Israeli citizenship, which is available to all Jews, than Judaism itself.

Approximately 70 percent of Maim Haim members have filed petitions for aliyah with the Jewish Agency for Israel. Their petitions are being held in abeyance while Israel’s Chief Rabbinate makes a determination as to their Jewish credentials.

“There should be a filter,” said Colombia’s chief rabbi, Alfredo Goldschmidt.


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