Song of the Sea: Jewish Life in the Caribbean
A mezuzah, no matter how small or how grand, is the essential marker of a Jewish home.
Now, thanks to the Latin American Masorti movement, homes in communities from Mexico to Argentina are marked as Jewish. Organized and sponsored by the Latin American Rabbinical Assembly; Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano (the Conservative/Masorti movement’s seminary in Buenos Aires); the Latin American branch of the Masorti movement; the Jewish community of Cordoba, Argentina; and STAM Buenos Aires (a scribal arts company run by Sebastián Grinberg, a Seminario student), the mezuzah marathon (or Mezuton for short) in May 2011 was a phenomenal success.
Almost 900 mezuzot were hung on doorposts in more than 30 communities in 11 countries in a single day. This was the first time that many families had fulfilled this mitzvah and identified their houses as Jewish. Rabbi Marcelo Polakoff, head of the Latin American Rabbinical Assembly, said that the Mezuton “went beyond our most optimistic expectations.” Plans for a 2012 Mezuton that will include Masorti communities around the world already are underway.
Among these mezuzah novices were the 12 families from the Caribbean city of Santa Marta, Colombia, who make up the fledgling Chavurat Shirat Hayyam (Song of the Sea). Like many of the other communities in the marathon, the families started their day with a minyan, followed by a breakfast of fried plantain cakes and spicy scrambled eggs. As their rabbi, I participated in many of the day’s events, leading the service and offering encouragement and tips on how to place the mezuzah correctly. But I had to content myself with hearing about the breakfast instead of eating it. My involvement was entirely via teleconference.
Shirat Hayyam is a unique lay-led congregation whose rabbinic guidance and education are done mostly over the internet. As in most brick-and-mortar congregations, the rabbi teaches weekly adult education classes and Hebrew school, visits the sick, and leads the weekly minyan. In Shirat Hayyam, however, the congregation sits by the balmy shores of the Caribbean while its rabbi sits in his study in Oklahoma City.
The long-distance rabbi is only one of Shirat Hayyam’s unusual elements. All of its members, without exception, are prospective converts to Judaism. And although some of them can trace their ancestry to Sephardic Jews who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition (those groups often are called benei anousim or conversos), they all have embraced Judaism as adults and have set off to build a Jewish community in their city.
In this sense, Shirat Hayyam is not unique. Communities of converts and descendants of anousim have mushroomed in Latin America over the past two decades. The desire to participate as equals with other normative Jewish communities in the region is strong. Unfortunately, issues of distance, culture, and security make it difficult for some of the small, already established Jewish communities of Latin America – themselves tiny islands in a sea of Catholicism and volatile politics – to accept communities like Shirat Hayyam. Therefore, participation in the Mezuton was not only a joyous religious event but also a wonderful opportunity to feel part of klal Yisrael. Karina Amador, a college student, said, “It was an experience that could hardly be described in words; to feel the support and the union of so many Jews across Latin America was like having a huge family. We felt this tie binding us together.”
My own involvement with this community began soon after my ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Hailing from a similar background as the members of Shirat Hayyam – my ancestors were hidden Jews in the mountains of Colombia – and being the first Latino convert to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi, I felt that I had a responsibility to increase the availability of Torah materials in Spanish. Thus, I started a weekly Spanish-language Mishnah class over the internet, where people could interact with me and ask me questions.
A very inquisitive group of students from Santa Marta immediately stood out with its dedication to the class and incessant requests for more instruction. After I visited the group in person almost two years ago, and confirmed its members’ seriousness and sincerity, we started to work long-distance on their Jewish education. We started learning two hours every week (aside from the Mishnah class). Then we began learning for four hours a week. Very soon we were meeting on the internet for Sunday morning minyan and for minchah before Friday night. Using chat and video, I counseled individual minyan members of the chavurah through sickness, death, and the difficulties of conversion. I also was able to participate in lifecycle events, including upsherins (first haircuts for young boys) and birthdays. Whenever I could, I would fly down and share with them in person.
Over these two years the members of the chavurah have grown immensely in their knowledge of Judaism as well as in their commitment to its values. They meet weekly to learn Torah and to pray, and we continue online learning together. Shirat Hayyam also has become a Shabbat hospitality destination for Jews and prospective Jews from as far away as Venezuela, Canada, and Israel, with members showing their commitment to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – hospitality. Rarely a month goes by when the chavurah does not host someone who came for the beaches and stayed for the kiddush. Visitors are amazed to see such a heimish and loving Jewish community in such a remote area of the world.
One of the most exciting aspects of my work has been the chance to see how Judaism’s global message resonates across the boundaries of culture, race, and geography. Shirat Hayyam looks for inspiration not only to the open Judaism of North America but also in the intense local culture of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Diane Tobin, the head of Be’chol Lashon, an organization advocating the growth of global Jewish communities, said, “We are very excited to see the development of these emergent communities in Latin America. As part of a global people, these communities, like their peers in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, can become agents of transformation and tikkun olam, enriching and strengthening the Jewish people.”
Still high from the success of the Mezuton, Shirat Hayyam is preparing itself for the next steps on its Jewish journey. The first wave of formal conversions will take place this winter. Once there is a core of fully fledged Jews, Shirat Hayyam, like any other community, will apply to affiliate with the international Masorti movement, so members can share institutional as well as spiritual ties with other Jews.
Since the Mezuton, Jews from around Santa Marta who want to reconnect with a Jewish community but thought there never would be one in their city have approached it. People from other cities also have reached out to the members of Shirat Hayyam. Many say they are willing to move to this Caribbean paradise to live their dream of leading a Jewish life.
Long-range plans include relocating Shirat Hayyam in a more permanent prayer space, buying land to establish a cemetery, and building a guest house to attract the rabbis and teachers who can enrich the community, in exchange for free lodging in one of the most beautiful and oldest cities on the continent. As for a mikvah, the ritual bath needed for conversion to Judaism and for the observance of ritual purity, Adal Alfaro López, the president of the chavurah, asks proudly, “Why do we need to build a ritual bath when we have the most beautiful bay in the Americas as our private mikvah?”
Rabbi Juan Mejía is the Southwestern regional coordinator for Be’chol Lashon. He lives in Oklahoma City, and reaches hundreds of Spanish speaking Jews and prospective converts through the use of new communication technologies. To learn more about his work go to www.bechollashon.org and www.koltuvsefarad.com.