René and Juan Carlos set out to convert their Colombian megachurch to Orthodox Judaism. This is what happened.
By Graciela Mochkofsky
Colombia photographs by Mateo Gómez García
Israel photographs by Michal Chelbin
With its decaying two-story homes and grazing cows, Bello looks like just another sleepy suburb of Medellín, Colombia. Thirty years ago, though, it was known as la capital de los sicarios, the capital of the assassins. Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel, which supplied most of the world’s cocaine, recruited many of his sicarios from Bello, paying them to eliminate his adversaries. Mostly teenagers, they rode motorcycles, prayed to La Virgen María Auxiliadora, and killed their victims in the streets. René Cano grew up in Bello at the height of Escobar’s reign.
Born in 1978, René was the child of a textile factory worker and a housewife, both observant Catholics. At 13, he was so tall and self-possessed that he passed for an 18-year-old and, by his own description, was sexually precocious. He could talk anyone into anything. When his father announced one evening there was no money, nothing for dinner, René ran outside with a chair and came back with cash.
His cousins were sicarios and so were his neighbors; almost everyone he knew was on drugs. His mother understood it was only a matter of time before René would join them, and she feared for his life. “Don’t hang out on the corner,” she told him one day, “because they will come.” Five minutes after she called him into the house, men gunned down seven boys on the spot where he had been standing. The stench of their deaths lingered for weeks.
To keep René off the streets, his mother enrolled him in an after-school music program. He learned to play the saxophone and the clarinet and joined a youth orchestra. But there was too much poverty and hopelessness for jazz to heal. René started to feel an unbearable emptiness, a lack of purpose in just surviving. He had witnessed countless murders, had lost most of his friends. For a brief period, anger propelled him into a revolutionary fervor. He joined leftist protests, burned cars, and threw rocks at the police.
Soon anger was replaced by depression. One desperate night when he was 18 and sickened by his life, by his promiscuity, he heard a voice on the radio: “You who are listening to me, pursue God! He will fill in the void you are feeling.” The next morning, René wandered around Bello until he found himself at the door of the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia, a Pentecostal church. Then he was inside the meeting hall, among several thousand believers who were singing and shouting, speaking in tongues and fainting, and, all at once, he felt at ease.
Two years older than René, Juan Carlos Villegas also grew up in Bello. The firstborn of two schoolteachers, he wore a perpetually grave expression and was an excellent student. At 15, he joined a local Pentecostal church because a girl he was pursuing was a member. He was immediately captivated, he says, by the “structure of faith” and a direct connection with God that he had never experienced; nominally Catholic, his family was deeply nonreligious. Not long after he joined the church, the two pastors who led it were indicted for laundering money for the Cali cartel. Juan Carlos followed another pastor, Andrés Puerta, to a church he founded nearby, Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia.
Juan Carlos dropped his studies in animal husbandry to be ordained a pastor. He soon learned to provoke an outpouring of emotion through sermons, music, and the laying on of hands. His parents, who had dreamed of seeing their eldest son graduate from college, were horrified. Juan Carlos had a talent for proselytizing. He attracted sicarios and would-be sicarios to Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia, which grew from 300 followers to 3,000 in four years. Puerta made Juan Carlos his right-hand man. Juan Carlos, in turn, relied on René, who had become the youth and music leader.
In 1998, the Colombian government reported that 3,800 young men had died violently in Bello during the previous decade. The finding prodded authorities to show that they were doing something to address the problem. A young psychologist went to the mayor with a proposal: Gather Bello’s worst and best and send them to the Negev Desert in Israel, far away from their violent environment. Then: instant resocialization. The mayor liked the idea and recruited youth leaders, among them René and the feuding bosses of Bello’s deadliest gangs — Fredy, El Negro, Marcelino — and flew them to Israel.
It turned out the sicarios did not have trouble fraternizing with Boy Scouts, Catholic Action enthusiasts, and the evangelical faithful. The problem was their own kind: El Negro’s bullet was still lodged in Fredy’s neck. Who could convince them to forgive and forget? The program’s organizers turned to René.
During the first week in Israel, the group had to sit through a course on leadership and community service. Deprived of drugs, the sicarios dropped unconscious from their chairs, one after the other, as if someone was cutting puppet strings. Fredy compulsively stole merchandise from shops. El Negro got into fistfights. In the children’s room at the Holocaust Museum, Marcelino broke into convulsive sobs. He was crying, René realized, not for the 6 million murdered Jews but for the 60 people he claimed he had killed.
René spent the first half of the trip as Fredy’s roommate, the second half as Marcelino’s. The group played soccer, drank beer, and talked about their lives while sitting by the light of a bonfire in the desert. By the end, Fredy and El Negro shook hands, and René immersed them in the Jordan River to signal their rebirth. Just before they headed home, the sicarios warned René and the others: If they told anyone what had been said by the fire, they’d be dead men.
Back in Bello, René realized that maybe he could save the sicarios’ souls, but he could not save them. Marcelino would stop by in his SUV to see René and ask if they could pray together. Before his trip to Israel, Marcelino used to ask the Virgin to give him good aim and enough bullets; now he begged her to preserve his life. After prayers one day, Marcelino climbed into his SUV, looked back at René, and asked him once again, “Pray for me.” Then he drove to his fancy apartment in a wealthy neighborhood in south Medellín, the opposite of Bello. That was the last time René saw him. One evening, a group of men with automatic weapons entered Marcelino’s building, climbed the stairs, and murdered him and his guests.
Fredy also sought René for spiritual guidance, sending a junior sicario to bring René to his hideout in one of the slums spread out on the hillsides. René would knock on the door; Fredy would be crouching behind it, gun in hand. He had survived two murder attempts and only let in people he trusted. Later, his enemies paid his best friend to kill him.
The same year René went to Israel, Juan Carlos and Puerta were invited to France to tour Pentecostal churches for a month. The French Pentecostal movement was small. Its leaders looked to Latin American pastors for inspiration. It was Juan Carlos’s first trip to the First World. Grateful and impressed, the French organizers presented the pastors with a ten-day trip to Israel.
The two arrived for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which evangelicals celebrate as the Feast of Tabernacles. They toured the major Christian sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Transfiguration. They were captivated by the landscape; the setting of the biblical tales came alive for them. But nothing impressed them more than a Feast of Tabernacles festival organized by Messianic Jews.
A huge crowd attended. A symphonic orchestra played Israeli folk music while 100 dancers twirled across the floor. The pastors had never heard such rapturous music. They had never heard a shofar, although they had read about it in the Old Testament — the ram’s horn whose “loud blast” made the Israelites on Mount Sinai tremble. The festival was itself a prophetic statement. The Messiah was coming soon, and He was coming to Israel. It was written in Zechariah 14:16: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of Hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Juan Carlos was watching a new kind of evangelical in action. Messianic Jews were Christians who claimed a Jewish identity. They wore traditional religious Jewish garments, such as kippot, or skullcaps, and tzitzit, the knotted tassels of thread that symbolize the commandments. They called their pastors rabbis. This was Judaism with Jesus Christ in it. The Colombians were mesmerized. In their Pentecostal interpretation of the Bible, love for Israel and the Jews earned special blessings. They had read, for instance, in Numbers 6:27, “And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” The Messianic Jews were opening the door to a more profound connection with the Jewish people.
They were also offering the pastors a new proselytizing tool. Back in Medellín, they set about organizing the first Feast of Tabernacles festival in the city, renting the 1,600-seat Metropolitan Theater for a massive show with musicians, dancers, and prayers. René blew the shofar.
On the night of April 28, 2002, as Juan Carlos was returning to Bello from a spiritual retreat, the Marxist-Leninist ELN guerrillas, the Elenos, kidnapped him. After a month of being moved around the jungle, sleeping in the rain, and eating one serving of rice a day, he was released. He emerged emaciated and infected with leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that produces ugly skin ulcers.
His father had given the Elenos everything he had — $50,000. The payment depleted the family’s savings, but when questioned by journalists, Juan Carlos claimed, “Not a single peso was paid for my freedom.” Extortive kidnappings by guerrillas were a common feature of Colombian life — there had been 3,700 kidnappings in 2000 alone — and they were a sensitive political issue. The police had demanded that Juan Carlos not reveal that his father had paid ransom. Instead, he should say that he had converted his captors to Christianity, presenting them a Bible in exchange for his release.
Juan Carlos went along. “Sometimes when I was reading the Bible to myself, they would ask me to read aloud so that they could all hear,” he told journalists. The lie turned him into a celebrity. He had become the pastor who had converted the anti-religion Elenos. But as he toured churches telling the story of his release, he began to feel guilty. “People were being deceived, lied to, manipulated,” he says. He felt ashamed about what he had put his family through as well. By abandoning college and becoming a pastor, he had shattered his father’s dream of creating a small agricultural business together. Now he had cost his father every cent he had saved.
He was living off other people’s illusions. What was he doing in his own church? He became acutely aware of how Pentecostalism — how he — exploited the parishioners, passing off psychological and emotional manipulation as divine intervention. His faith was untouched, but he needed to find a new way of connecting with God.
His experience in Israel was all he could think about. What he had seen there felt closer to the truth. He slowly steered the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia toward Messianism, changing the title of pastor to rabbi, persuading men to wear kippot and tzitzit, emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus, the idea that Jesus had been a rabbi himself. The more he did this, though, the more he questioned the dogma of Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had been just a rabbi, then how could he be the son of God?
Maybe Juan Carlos was trying to put some distance between himself and Colombia, where he had been kidnapped and had destroyed his parents’ hopes, where most people are stuck with the few choices they are born into. Or maybe he was just trying to distance himself from his past, trying to become someone else.
In early 2004, Juan Carlos returned to Jerusalem with Puerta. They stood by the Wailing Wall and searched for Orthodox rabbis who spoke Spanish. When they found a few, the pastors pummeled them with questions. How do you explain the Jewish Messiah? Why did the Jews not accept Jesus? How do you interpret the Messianic prophecies? Was the Messiah God? Was he man?
Juan Carlos was impressed by these rabbis and their answers. They were nothing like the pastors he had known. They were intellectuals, who had imposing beards and were nearsighted from reading sacred texts. They were inheritors of an ancient tradition, members of a richer culture than the one he knew. This was what he had been looking for.
Juan Carlos went back to Bello a converted man. Puerta agreed: Messianism was a meaningless hybrid. They had to embrace Judaism. If the congregation would not accept such a radical course, Juan Carlos was ready to leave and start over.
Puerta tried to slow him down, but Juan Carlos felt that waiting was dishonest. In the first assembly upon their return, before 3,000 faithful, he took responsibility for what he’d done. He had lied. He had exploited their needs and hopes. He had failed as a pastor. And the ultimate lie was Jesus himself: He was not a god; he was not the Messiah. Juan Carlos did not believe in him anymore.
People screamed. Some shouted accusations of betrayal. But Juan Carlos did not back down. For the next two months, he went door to door, calling on all the congregants. He offered further explanations and gave everyone the opportunity to reproach him in person. He read the Old Testament with them, revisiting passages where he now found evidence to disprove the notion of Jesus as God.
For most, denying Jesus was soul ripping. A woman confided that she had spent the night crying, looking up at the starry sky, asking God if she could believe in the pastor’s new ideas. “What will I do without my Jesus?” she sobbed.
Puerta, who had also apologized to the flock, left for the United States without saying goodbye, never to return. It was the end of the Iglesia Cristiana para la Familia. Most of its members left to find a new church or abandoned religion altogether. Yet, to Juan Carlos’s surprise, 600 parishioners declared that they trusted him and would follow him into Judaism. Among them was René.
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 of them 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.
Juan Carlos quickly understood that a Jewish life was based more on actions and ritual than on the emotional catharsis that Pentecostalism had provided — a concept that was hard to teach and hard to learn. He found himself lecturing a despairing follower. “If you want to feel something every day during morning prayers, this is not going to work,” he explained. “There is nothing to feel. You just have to do it!”
In groups of 30, men marched to the surgeon’s office to get circumcised. René had recently married Carol Zapata, a young woman with silky skin and big black eyes whom he had met in church and who had followed him into Judaism. At his 27th birthday party, she handed him a stack of bills. “Here,” she said. “For your circumcision.”
These aspiring Jews needed a synagogue. They built it in the same basement they had rented for their church. To the entrance they nailed a mezuza, the rectangular case containing a Hebrew prayer that is affixed to the door frame of a Jewish home.
One evening, as they were praying, someone stole the mezuza. René ran after the thief but lost him. A few months later, René was taking a walk with his wife, carrying his son in his arms, when he saw the culprit. “Hold the baby,” he said to his wife. When he caught up with the thief, he knocked him down with one punch.
There were still many prayers, songs, rituals, holidays, and rules the congregants knew nothing about or were not sure how to practice. Juan Carlos decided he had to get inside a synagogue and see firsthand how Jews did things. It could not be done in Medellín or in any other Colombian city, where synagogues have security guards and visitors are vetted. Juan Carlos had an uncle who lived in Miami, where synagogues are open; he could just walk in. Which is what he did, hiding a tape recorder in his shirt pocket.
A Judaica storeowner in Miami introduced him to Juan Garrandes. The son of Cuban émigrés, Garrandes looked like a rabbi with his thick beard, black suit, and black hat, and he introduced himself as a rabbi, though some Jewish publications have accused him of not being one. (When I spoke to Garrandes, he claimed he had been ordained, but he couldn’t tell me when. “Maybe 1995,” he said.)
Garrandes listened to Juan Carlos’s story and said he was willing to meet the community if they’d pay for his expenses. It took several months to raise the funds, and in early 2006, Garrandes spent a week with the congregants, teaching evening classes. At the end, he said he was ready to bring them “to the doors of Eretz Israel” — the land of Israel.
Garrandes continued the classes over Skype. He taught them how to read the Hebrew transliterations in the siddurs, the prayer books. He taught them about liturgy; about the three daily prayers of shacharit (morning), mincha (afternoon), and arvit (evening); and about the tefillin, the small leather boxes attached to straps that men wear during morning prayers. He taught them about the history of Israel and Jewish laws and customs. He taught them to separate men from women during services, a requirement many found trying. Garrandes insisted that, if they wanted to be taken seriously, they needed to become not just Jews but Orthodox Jews.
They stopped driving their cars and playing music on Shabbat. René dissolved his jazz band and never played an instrument again. Garrandes explained that a synagogue requires a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll handwritten on parchment. The cost, about $20,000, was beyond the reach of the congregation. But someone heard about a used Sefer Torah available at a lower price. Everyone was asked to contribute as much as they could afford. René’s salary as a technician at a motorcycle factory was barely enough to support his family. He realized the one thing he and his wife could sell was their beloved dog. “This is not a game,” René told his wife. “This is serious.”
It took four years, until 2009, to complete a process that was as much “Christian detoxification,” in René’s words, as it was Judaization. Most found it impossible. Of the 600 original aspiring Jews, only 200 remained. Garrandes introduced them to Moshe Ohana, an Orthodox Moroccan rabbi and a kabbalist also based in Miami. He was willing to convert them. Ohana asked the community to pay his fee in dollars for each conversion as well as cover his expenses. The congregants raised the money once again and paid, as they had paid for everything else: airplane tickets and lodging for rabbis, books, the Sefer Torah, kosher food, circumcisions. It turned out that becoming Jewish was expensive. By some estimates, it took 10 million pesos, about $3,000, to make a new Jew in Colombia. This was the equivalent of a year’s earnings for most.
Members did not flinch. They welcomed Ohana and underwent two weeks of preparations. He helped them kosherize their pots and silverware and checked that they were knowledgeable about Judaism. Then he proceeded to convert them in a massive ceremony that lasted three days. Ohana had brought two rabbis from Miami to comply with the Jewish requirement of having a three-man tribunal test the sincerity of the candidates. Families were grouped together and asked questions about everything from preparing a home for Passover to identifying the prayer inscribed inside a mezuza. Ohana drew a drop of blood from the men’s circumcised penises to fulfill symbolically the Abrahamic covenant. He made sure everyone was immersed in water during the ritual bath in a pond in the mountains outside of Medellín. He remarried all the couples, because their previous unions were considered invalid.
On the final day, Ohana requested everyone’s birth dates. He picked their Hebrew names according to a calculation based on the number of letters in their Christian names and astrological considerations. René became Shlomo. Juan Carlos became Elad.
Elad realized that, after all those years of learning, the Jews of Bello were just at the beginning. They had yet to build a community that the rest of the Jewish world would recognize. In order to do that, they needed a rabbi. Not a pay-per-day, Miami-imported rabbi, but a stable rabbi, a religious leader.
Ohana seemed the obvious — and only — choice, and he became the first rabbi of the renamed Jewish Community of Antioquia (the region of which Medellín is the capital). The arrangement didn’t last. Ohana was Elad’s opposite: moody and antagonistic. In early 2010, when Elad received word that a young Chabad rabbi in Medellín was looking for a congregation, he dismissed Ohana.
The Chabad rabbi negotiated a figure with Elad and moved from posh El Poblado to impoverished Bello. Elad felt an immense satisfaction in recruiting him. The Chabad had opposed their conversion. But this arrangement didn’t last long either. For a year, the rabbi pretended to be the leader of a community in which the only true leader was Elad. His contract was not renewed.
After two failed rabbis, Elad decided to do what he had always done when faced with a challenge: take on the job himself. The opportunity presented itself when David and Yitzhak Goldstein, two ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbis, arrived at the synagogue in late 2012. They were canvassing Colombia in search of young men to bring to Israel as students for Diaspora Yeshiva, the Torah studies center they owned in Jerusalem. “My interest is to fill up Israel with Jewish people who identify themselves with the State of Israel as a Jewish state and Torah as their religion,” Yitzhak Goldstein says. He and his brother were looking at South America as a new “market.”
Becoming a rabbi usually requires five years and fluency in Hebrew, but the Goldsteins told Elad he would only have to attend for a minimum of two years and could study primarily in Spanish. Elad, who by then was married and the father of two children, replied he could not abandon his family and congregation for such a long period. He needed to complete everything in one year. The Goldsteins agreed.
After ten months of little sleep, two meals a day, and sharing a small room with eight other students, Elad returned to Medellín in December 2013 with a rabbinical title. A leader of the traditional Jewish community of Bogotá who visited him at the yeshiva told me, “I don’t know any member of our community who would go through the sacrifice Elad put himself through.” For Elad, though, it had been a perfect deal. He was now Rabbi Elad Villegas, leader of the Jewish Community of Antioquia. Its members would never again have to depend on anyone but themselves.
I visited Bello ten months after Elad returned from Israel. Medellín was a different metropolis from the one he and Shlomo had grown up in. Public art, new parks, glamorous architecture, a world-class metro system, and a sharp decline in violent crime had turned it into one of the most visited cities in South America. With its backyard gardens and elderly looking out front windows, Bello looks like a quiet provincial town from the 1950s.
I asked the driver who picked me up from the airport to take me straight to the synagogue. The place was bustling. On the ground floor, elementary-school-age children were taking Hebrew lessons next to a large kitchen where kosher bread was being baked. In the backyard, a white plastic awning covered two dozen or so round tables. On the first floor, where Elad has his office, a couple of men wearing black kippot were reading in a study room, its walls covered floor to ceiling with shelves filled with biblical and Talmudic literature. The main hall, which serves as the center of worship, contained the Aron ha-Kodesh, the ornamental closet holding two Torah scrolls, a stand, and a bimah, the elevated platform from where the Torah is read during services. A large number of chairs and mechitzas, the gender partitions, were folded against a wall. The shochet, the ritual slaughterer, was teaching Torah to a group of young men.
For most Shabbat and holiday services, Israeli backpackers, Jewish tourists, and foreign rabbis passing through Medellín gathered at the synagogue or shopped for kosher food downstairs. Most were ignorant of their hosts’ Christian past. Even a few Jews from El Poblado were now making the 40-minute trek to purchase kosher chicken and challah. Goldschmidt, the Great Rabbi of Colombia who had been moved by the congregation’s desire to convert but initially said he couldn’t help, was now one of their strongest advocates, helping them raise money and serving as a bridge to the older Jewish communities.
A decade into their Jewish lives, the converts of Bello were at the center of a larger story. Millions throughout Latin America have abandoned Catholicism, the faith of their parents. For almost 500 years, the church had maintained a monopoly on their souls. In the 1960s, 90 percent of the population was Catholic. That figure has now dropped to 69 percent. Most of the apostates moved toward evangelicalism, but a smaller, less visible cohort chose Judaism.
The Jews of Bello are the best organized, but they are not the only group that has transitioned from Catholicism to evangelicalism to Judaism. There are at least 60 such communities at different stages of conversion in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia. Even in Colombia, Bello is not unique. Thirty similar communities have emerged across the country. Some are just starting; others have been practicing for years.
They have come to Judaism separately, most without knowing about the others. Some converted out of a desire to pursue something original. Some found Judaism during their biblical studies. Others were attracted by the allure of Israel as a world power and the social prestige of Jewish identity as one of economic privilege. Since traditional Jewish communities throughout the region have consistently refused to accept or even recognize them, a parallel Jewish life has taken shape.
In Medellín, though, Elad has become the public face not only of the conversion movement but of Judaism itself. One morning, we drove to an elite school in El Poblado where he had been invited to speak at an interfaith forum. No one from the older Jewish community had been included. The next day, he delivered a lecture on kashrut at a conference on food security at a private university, also in El Poblado. At both events, he was introduced as “the leader of the Jewish Community of Antioquia.”
Elad told me about his many plans. A design for a mikvah, or ritual bath, to be built on the synagogue’s premises had been sent to Israel for rabbinical approval. He was about to close a deal with a poultry farm in Cali, an hour’s flight away, to open a kosher section. With the support of the Goldsteins, a new yeshiva for converts from Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador was in the works.
I was curious. His path toward Judaism had started in Jerusalem. Wasn’t he tempted to make the final step that so many converts take: aliyah, migration to Israel? He loved Israel, he replied, and the idea of living there was tempting, and he had considered it, but he needed to stay in Bello. People depended on him. Here he was a leader.
While Elad talked about his future in Colombia, Shlomo could not wait to leave. His son, Baruj, was already 6 years old, his daughter, Gabriela, was 3, and his wife was expecting a third child, a boy. He said they were fretting about not being able to find a mohel, a circumciser. (Two weeks later, when Shimon was born, they paid $1,500 to fly one in from Costa Rica.) His wife had to travel for an hour in the early morning to reach the pond the women had been using as their mikvah. It was not safe for a woman to be nude in the open, he lamented, and it was freezing cold in winter.
It was also hard to make a living in Colombia. He had quit his job at the motorcycle factory and was unemployed. They had little money. What would happen when the children were grown? How would he keep them away from the non-Jewish world? Who would they share their Orthodox Jewish lives with? His eyes flared when I brought up the Jews of El Poblado. “Let’s get one of their children together with Baruj,” he said, “and ask him about the parsha” — the Torah portion — “of the week, about Jewish laws, and mitzvahs. Let’s see who knows more, and then let them tell me my son is not Jewish.”
Two days later, on a Friday night, I left the synagogue with a crowd of about 100. The men wore black suits, white shirts with tzitzit, and black knitted kippot or black fedoras. The women were dressed in long polyester skirts and bright head scarves. They were heading home after Shabbat services. They had been chanting and praising God, the men fervently kissing a Torah scroll, and were in a merry mood. I was walking between Elad and Shlomo. We chatted about the women who had stayed at home preparing the most important dinner of the week and the families who were hosting. We reached the corner of Bello’s main street and were about to scatter, wishing “Shabbat shalom” to one another, when a crowd of Zorros, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Ebola nurses, witches, and princesses engulfed us. It was October 31, the night of Halloween.
A grown-up superhero asked in a loud voice, “What are these dressed up as?”
A trick-or-treater replied, “As fanatics.”
The Jews ignored the Halloweeners and parted in small groups toward their dinners. Elad turned left. I continued walking uphill with Shlomo, Baruj, and their half-dozen guests. Before we reached the next corner, a man approached Baruj, who, like his father, was dressed in a black suit, and gave him candy.
“Drop that,” Shlomo told him.
Baruj held on tight to the candy.
Shlomo pulled him gently to the side. I could not hear his words, but Baruj looked disappointed. He hesitated. Finally, he put the candy on the sidewalk. “We will wear costumes for Purim,” Shlomo promised. “This holiday is not ours.”
By the Israeli Law of Return, all Jews have the right to migrate to Israel, but their Judaism needs to be proven. For those converted by Conservative or Reform rabbis in the Diaspora, the Jewish Agency is obligated to confirm only the rabbis’ authenticity and affiliation with a local community. If the converts are Orthodox, though, the Jewish Agency must go to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel for approval. In recent years, the Chief Rabbinate has blacklisted a number of Orthodox rabbis whom it deems too progressive. There are only 47 Orthodox rabbis authorized to perform conversions in the world; not one is in Latin America. Yet ten Orthodox rabbis perform conversions regularly in Latin America, which are valid everywhere — except in Israel.
In his desire to immigrate, Shlomo found an ally in Shavei Israel, a controversial right-wing organization best known for sponsoring the migration to Israel of the Bnei Menashe, a group from northeast India who claim to be descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Shavei Israel is an advocate for a Greater Israel, the belief that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the State of Israel by divine right.
Michael Freund, Shavei Israel’s founder and director, is an Orthodox Jew who was raised on New York’s Upper East Side and moved to Israel in 1995. Less than two years later, he became deputy communications director in Binyamin Netanyahu’s first administration. It was during his tenure that he discovered the Bnei Menashe and became the main champion of the dispersed Jews of the world — not only the alleged descendants of the lost tribes but all sorts of hidden Jews, former Jews, and wannabe Jews — helping several thousand to become Israelis.
He had no interest in Colombia until Shavei Israel’s educational director came back from touring Latin America in 2013 with news that tens of thousands from the region wanted to migrate. This got Freund’s attention. He sent a rabbi to Colombia to live in Bello and the other new communities. The rabbi spent months preparing a list of candidates for migration. Shlomo was at the top. He was one of the most articulate and experienced among the converts, and with his street smarts, the rabbi concluded, he would have no problem adapting to Israel.
But Shlomo was shocked to learn that he had to convert again. Rabbi Ohana’s certification was not good enough for the Chief Rabbinate. In August 2014, Shavei Israel flew one of the ten rabbis who perform conversions in Latin America to Bogotá to convert Shlomo, his family, and 42 other Colombians again.
When I visited Shlomo in Bello, he was having a hard time trying to repress his anxiety. Why weren’t they in Israel already? What was holding things up? He did not know where they would live or how he was going to earn a living, and he did not care.
Without Shlomo’s knowledge, Shavei Israel was lobbying the Chief Rabbinate to approve the new conversions. At the same time, it was making arrangements with the Interior and Absorption ministries to provide for the converts when they arrived in Israel.
I asked Shlomo what he thought about moving his family to a country at war, possibly even to the West Bank settlements that were at the center of Israeli-Palestinian tensions. “Here, if you break that man’s car window, he will kill you outright,” he said. “If you shout to that man walking over there that his girlfriend is pretty, he will kill you. So what is a war? Am I worried? No. I don’t mean to sound cruel, but just look at the statistics of the last war. Look at the Palestinian dead count and the Israeli dead count. I think Israel is well covered.”
Six months passed. Then, on May 7, 2015, I received a WhatsApp message from Shlomo: “Done. June 7. Sunday. To Israel.” It was followed by a string of happy-face emoticons.
Shlomo’s next WhatsApp message came on June 8. A photograph of his two eldest children smiling, pushing their baby brother’s stroller down the sidewalk next to the immigrant absorption center in Karmiel, a city in Galilee.
Shlomo was unaware of the complex efforts required to get him to Israel. The Chief Rabbinate’s intransigence had turned the Jewish Agency into Shavei Israel’s unexpected ally. The agency was considering bypassing the Chief Rabbinate’s authority and establishing an independent Orthodox rabbinical court to perform conversions overseas. In order to “test the waters,” as one person put it, the agency approved a handful of Orthodox overseas conversions not sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate. Shlomo and his family were part of the group. Not long after, the agency went ahead and approved the creation of the new Orthodox rabbinical court. Reacting as if war had been declared, the Chief Rabbinate made it known that the conversions would not be recognized.
Fortunately for Shlomo, he and his family were already in Israel. When I arrived in Karmiel, he picked me up from a bus stop around the corner from the absorption center, a tall concrete building painted purple. We had coffee at a nearby kiosk.
Shlomo had given his family a new last name — Caro instead of Cano. Joseph Caro was a 16th-century Jewish sage who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the most widely consulted Jewish legal code. By changing just one letter, Shlomo was hoping to provide his children with a name that had prestige and tradition.
He told me about two Jews stopping their car on a street crossing, shouting “Minyan, minyan!” and inviting him to hop in. Shlomo, not speaking more than a few words of Hebrew, good for ritual but useless for conversation, was driven to a synagogue on top of the hill as the tenth man needed for the morning prayers. Afterward, they returned him to the street crossing. Later, another driver offered him and his family a ride when they were loaded down with children, shopping bags, and a stroller. The driver dropped them off at the center and handed Shlomo a $100 bill with a handshake and a “Welcome to Israel” smile.
But not everything was perfect. He had forbidden his son and daughter to play with other children at the absorption center. They were Russian immigrants. “Not only are they not religious,” he said, “most likely they are not Jewish at all.” The children would only play among themselves until they found proper friends. The elementary school that the Jewish Agency had suggested turned out not to be Orthodox, so Shlomo couldn’t send them there. He had been told about an ultra-Orthodox school, but he was advised to leave his knitted black kippa at home when visiting the principal of the school. It was best to wear a velvet black kippa instead.
“What did that mean?” I asked him. He was not sure. From what he understood, the knitted kippa meant “nationalist.” But the velvet one? He was at a loss.
It seemed, he told me, there were many different ways of being Jewish in Israel.
“And what kind of Jew will you be?” I asked.
He looked at me bemused. “I wanted to be just a Jew,” he said.
As if there were such a thing.
Graciela Mochkofsky is the director of the Spanish-language journalism program at The City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has been a visiting scholar with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Her book Prophet of the Andes will be published in 2017.
Michal Chelbin is a photographer based in Israel. She is the author of three monographs, and her work is in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.
Mateo Gómez García was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and studied photography in Buenos Aires. In 2009, he returned to Colombia to dedicate himself to documentary projects.
Originally published at californiasunday.com on April 28, 2016.