Mass Converts Pose Dilemma for Latin American Jews

16

yarmulkeThe JTA reports: Luis Alberto Prieto Vargas appears to be a Jew. He wears a kipah, 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 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 Mayim Chaim — meaning “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 emigres-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.

He said the country is witnessing an “explosion” of groups hoping to convert. Colombia has about 4,000 Jews.

When he first arrived in Bogota in 1974, Goldschmidt said, he would get about one call per month from someone interested in converting. By 1996, the rabbi said, the rate had jumped to one per week. About seven years ago it was up to two to three calls per week.

Goldschmidt says the Internet has fueled interest in Judaism. Some conducting their spiritual quests online are coming across rabbis who offer services on the Web.

Last December, members of Colombia’s nine Jewish communities gathered to debate mass conversions and how to handle them.

“Latin American Jewish communities are not prepared for the challenge of mass conversions,” said Marcos Peckel, president of the Colombian Jewish Community Confederation, the umbrella organization for Colombian Jewry.

There are cases now, he said, “in which people going through conversion processes are larger than the traditional Jewish community itself. This would significantly alter the community’s life.”

For the time being, Main Haim members have been keeping Jewish traditions — acquiring a Torah scroll, holding bar mitzvah ceremonies and importing a mohel from Venezuela when there is a newborn to circumcise. Denied access to the mikvah in Bogota, the congregation uses a river outside of Bogota as its ritual bath.

Peckel says each Jewish institution must decide whether or not to accept Maim Haim congregants as members. He notes that the group’s members have not asked to join Colombia’s main Jewish institutions.

“They decided to convert themselves as a group and establish their own community,” Peckel told JTA. “They didn’t convert to join our communities. Also, they were converted by Israeli rabbis without consulting the Colombian Jewish communities.”

Gradually, however, the Maim Haim community has gained some legitimacy.

About six months ago, a Jewish community center in Bogota offered the group some space and invited the community to Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.

A few weeks ago, Maim Haim members joined a class taught by a local rabbi.

“Little by little, the community’s doors have started to open to us,” said Vargas, whose son and two other members of Maim Haim are studying at a yeshiva in Israel.

“It is unfortunate the rejection of Maim Haim and other groups that go through the whole conversion process are still not received in their city’s synagogues,” said Jaime Eisenband, president of a Colombian Jewish institution, the Baranquilla Philanthropic Israeli Center. “I honestly see it more as a social issue than religious. Despite the brave standpoint of some Colombian Orthodox rabbis saying they should be received as Jews, the community leadership still keeps them out.”

Vargas discussed the difficulties of converts and would-be converts in Colombia and Peru at last month’s conference for Latin American and Caribbean Jewish community leaders. Organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the conference took place in Cartagena.

At the conference, Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of Peru, one of Lima’s three rabbis, said the issue of conversions is a political one that needs to be dealt with by the community as a whole.

“We have to be humble,” Bronstein said. “Instead of judging the people wanting to be Jewish, we should put ourselves in their shoes.”

Mass converts pose dilemma for Latin American Jews
By Florencia Arbiser · June 18, 2009

CARTAGENA, Colombia (JTA) — Luis Alberto Prieto Vargas appears to be a Jew.

He wears a kipah, 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 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 emigres-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.

He said the country is witnessing an “explosion” of groups hoping to convert. Colombia has about 4,000 Jews.

When he first arrived in Bogota in 1974, Goldschmidt said, he would get about one call per month from someone interested in converting. By 1996, the rabbi said, the rate had jumped to one per week. About seven years ago it was up to two to three calls per week.

Goldschmidt says the Internet has fueled interest in Judaism. Some conducting their spiritual quests online are coming across rabbis who offer services on the Web.

Last December, members of Colombia’s nine Jewish communities gathered to debate mass conversions and how to handle them.

“Latin American Jewish communities are not prepared for the challenge of mass conversions,” said Marcos Peckel, president of the Colombian Jewish Community Confederation, the umbrella organization for Colombian Jewry.

There are cases now, he said, “in which people going through conversion processes are larger than the traditional Jewish community itself. This would significantly alter the community’s life.”

For the time being, Main Haim members have been keeping Jewish traditions — acquiring a Torah scroll, holding bar mitzvah ceremonies and importing a mohel from Venezuela when there is a newborn to circumcise. Denied access to the mikvah in Bogota, the congregation uses a river outside of Bogota as its ritual bath.

Peckel says each Jewish institution must decide whether or not to accept Maim Haim congregants as members. He notes that the group’s members have not asked to join Colombia’s main Jewish institutions.

“They decided to convert themselves as a group and establish their own community,” Peckel told JTA. “They didn’t convert to join our communities. Also, they were converted by Israeli rabbis without consulting the Colombian Jewish communities.”

Gradually, however, the Maim Haim community has gained some legitimacy.

About six months ago, a Jewish community center in Bogota offered the group some space and invited the community to Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.

A few weeks ago, Maim Haim members joined a class taught by a local rabbi.

“Little by little, the community’s doors have started to open to us,” said Vargas, whose son and two other members of Maim Haim are studying at a yeshiva in Israel.

“It is unfortunate the rejection of Maim Haim and other groups that go through the whole conversion process are still not received in their city’s synagogues,” said Jaime Eisenband, president of a Colombian Jewish institution, the Baranquilla Philanthropic Israeli Center. “I honestly see it more as a social issue than religious. Despite the brave standpoint of some Colombian Orthodox rabbis saying they should be received as Jews, the community leadership still keeps them out.”

Vargas discussed the difficulties of converts and would-be converts in Colombia and Peru at last month’s conference for Latin American and Caribbean Jewish community leaders. Organized by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the conference took place in Cartagena.

At the conference, Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein of Peru, one of Lima’s three rabbis, said the issue of conversions is a political one that needs to be dealt with by the community as a whole.

“We have to be humble,” Bronstein said. “Instead of judging the people wanting to be Jewish, we should put ourselves in their shoes.”

{JTA}

16 COMMENTS

  1. What do the Gedolai Haposkim say concerning their halachic status. Rav Wosner? Rav Elyashiv? Were they asked? Their status will not be determined by the Chief Rabbinat of the Treif Medina.

  2. You are wrong. Their status will be decided by the zionist country but they will have a lot less obstacles if the gedolei haposkim approve their conversion, which is highly doubted.

  3. the above comments are sick .. such sinas chinam
    why is it necessary to qualify the medina with pejoratives ??
    are you guys so insecure that you must put down in order to feel good about yourselves ???
    shame on you all !!!!
    remember .. sinas chinam destroyed the bais hamikdash NOT zionism

  4. With all your respect, please check your data, R. Alfredo Goldshmith is not the chief rabbi of colombia r bogota for that matter he is the rabbi of the ashkenazi community. And by the way, he accepts all converts and he makes conversions himself witch are not so kosher, they dont even study correctly or guide their lives according to jewish guidelines, they just do it to be able to feel good about marring a goy.
    We should love converts definitely, but real converts, who value the greatness of torah and are converted accordingly, which i hope this group is.

  5. The first comment posted here from Ehrlich Yid is the most correct: These people need to consult the leading Torah true Poskim of our time: Rav Elyashuv, Rav Wosner, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, and they will properly guide and direct them, in both making a correct true Geirus and in living Torah true lives afterwards.
    ———————————————–
    By the way, it is NOT sinas chinam to refer to the secular, anti-religious, anti-moral State of Israel as a “Treif Medinah”!!

  6. BS”D
    btw the Rabbi who stopped those conversions is RAbbi Shlomo Meir El-harar and he is a tzadik shel emes. I know him personally.

  7. Rabbbbbi goyshmitis is not shomer halocha he is not shomer kashrus and also not shomer negio
    only pay 10,000$ and u recive an jewish diploma
    call him today

  8. if the conversions are like the shojet’s conversion and the shojets treif meat we got a big problem and we are in big truble.

    good luck colombia.

  9. i like the anonymous you got it i belong to his community. he calls himself orthodox rabbi however he is conservative/reform he doesnt keep kosher and he accept everyone jews or non. he made a business out of conversions in colombia he will convert with his friends rabbis in israel and miami anyone. its sad that our community accepts him and no one says anything. by the way he also has kosher symbol and he is being trusted.it’s all about the money.

  10. the best ,fast but not kosher way to make $$$ is conversion business.
    for more information call rabbbbbbbiiii goyshmit from bogota colombia and-or rabbbbiiii bumzer from young israel brook. n.y

  11. in approximately 5 years the majority of the student in the Hebrew day school of bogota will be from mix marriage.who is the responsibility ???
    only goyshmit.

  12. The Jewish community of Colombia is to blame. For years they have resisted to create a real program for conversion that is serious, committed and does not cost thousands of dollars because they are afraid that “dark” Colombians will come into their shuls. This racism (which sadly also comes through in some of the commentaries of this thread), has created a “black market” for conversions which, of course, then gives them the excuse to drag their feet and say that they don´t know if they want to recognize these conversions. It is not their privilege to recognize or not. A person converted kehalakha (which has NOTHING to do with the stringent opinions of the self proclaimed “gedolei haposekim”) is a Jew and you should accept him (or her) and love her. (BTW, Anonymous, children of mixed marriages where the mother or the father have converted are NOT children of mixed marriages, this violates the din of reminding the convert of their previous status which is assur according to the Talmud and all the major posekim.)

  13. This is truly disgusting! Many of us are not jews today because our forefathers were obliged by the catholic inquisition to deny their faith. Many of us today are not jews because for ages there was no zionism or the state of Israel to give us refuge and shelter from the antisemitic forces of the world. many of us have much more jewish blood running through their veins than most of the blue eyed, blond ashkenazi ever had or will have!!! Meanwhile they seem to reserve for themselves the right to decide who is or is not a jew, even if thatone wants to convert to judaism. It is about time somebody tells them some hard to swallow truth. If you go back in time, blonde jews would be found only if they were “albinos”. Shame on these type of racial(colour) descrimination.

  14. Colombian Jew Community = Racism.
    This issue is only social and economic, if the group continues after years of rejection, his motivation is good. Mr. Peckel says Maim Haim people don’t want to belong to this community, what is the fear ?? $$$$. The community don’t accept people without money.
    Please check the previous deeds with Rav Elharar, may be you change your thinking.
    May H” helpS that group in that country.

  15. I can’t believe how hard it is to embrace the
    religion of my ancestors, if I have money, if I don’t have money, if I am not blonde, I am not blonde, so I can’t convert, to the religion of my grandfather, and my ancestors because I will not be excepted in your house of worship. You all really scare me by your post. I was so happy to find out who we were, because I could never find my place, I really thought I was home. What ugly people there are in this world, we didn’t learn anything.

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