This piece from The California Sunday Magazine on two men, Juan Carlos and Rene, attempting to convert people in heavily Catholic and poor Colombia to Judaism is fascinating to me precisely because I do not prescribe to any organized religion or faith.
BUT HOW TO be a Jew?
Juan Carlos had no idea. Neither did René. They sought out Medellín’s tiny Jewish community. A close-knit group of about 300 dating back to before World War II, they had once numbered more than 500, but many had fled the country during the drug war. Few kept kosher; most attended synagogue services only during the High Holidays. Judaism was a cultural, not a religious, identity.
At the time, the entire Jewish population lived in El Poblado, the most affluent neighborhood in the city. As Arie Eidelman, manager of the Hebrew School, points out, there were “no low-income Jews in Medellín.” Many were prominent in finance and textiles. The ride from Bello to El Poblado is just 40 minutes, but for René and Juan Carlos, it was a world apart. René had previously met Eidelman and other Jewish leaders when they had hired his band for their celebrations and he had blown the shofar. But when René and Juan Carlos told them about their decision to convert to Judaism, the leaders rejected them out of hand.
Leaving the church with René and Juan Carlos were factory workers, cleaning ladies, carpenters, taxi drivers, small-shop owners. Why would any ofthem want to become Jewish except to take advantage of the community’s wealth? This suspicion was not just a matter of class but also of power. The leaders could envision a future in which the Jews of Bello would outnumber the Jews of El Poblado.
Juan Carlos and René realized they had to look beyond Medellín. They emailed the Great Rabbi of Colombia, Alfredo Goldschmidt, asking for help. The rabbi was sympathetic, but demurred. Colombian Jews lacked the means to respond to such an unusual case, he told them. They were on their own.
With the sole guidance of books, Juan Carlos introduced the most critical changes to the congregation: Shabbat, kashrut (dietary restrictions), and circumcision. Members stopped working on Saturdays, though for months they continued to play music, take photographs, and pursue a number of activities that were prohibited. Pork and shellfish were banned; meat and milk were no longer mixed. When ordering coffee at a café, members asked that it be served in a disposable cup to ensure that it hadn’t been polluted by pork. When René visited his mother for meals, he brought his own cooking pots.
Others broke with their friends and families permanently. But Juan Carlos’s parents felt the son they had lost to Pentecostalism had come back to them and to his senses. “My husband is an intellectual. He is a teacher. And that church…” Juan Carlos’s mother told me, rolling her eyes. “When Juan Carlos moved toward Judaism, my husband said, ‘Finally, something serious.’” They decided to become Jews as well.
What moves a person inside to seek faith, to embrace what resonates with themselves and with others? In a way I respect that, finding something good and worthwhile from religion, when often here I discuss how religion can be and has been used to divide, demoralize, demonize and destroy people.
Of course there are good people of faith in the world. I'm just not one of them. I'd like to think you can be good, and that you can make a difference through actions and not beliefs, but then again I have my beliefs as well and I'm sure all of you do too.