My love story with Guatemla begins ten years ago, when my dear friend Adrienne Rosen went to Guatemala to find her adopted daughter Alana’s birth family. On her trip, Adrienne was overwhelmed by the incredible poverty she found in her daughter’s birth town, La Union. So profound was her experience there that she determined to help the community in her daughter’s honor. Thus was born Access Education Guatemalan Children’s Fund, whose goal is to build schools in rural towns like La Union, for education is surely a way out of the cycle of poverty into which her daughter had been born and others would suffer for their lifetimes.
Adrienne asked me if I would be on the Funds Board of Access, and I said yes. I must admit that I never gave Guatemala much thought. To me it seemed far away, scary (from what I had read), and I don’t even speak Spanish. But I did it for her. What a surprise to find myself four years ago on a mission to see the new school the Fund had just sponsored. In planning the trip, we opened it up to the public. Seven Jewish women volunteered to join us.
Knowing that our mission was now in the spirit of tikkun olam (the Jewish directive to repair the world), I wanted to make sure we had Shabbat with the Jewish community. When I searched the internet, I found three congregations: Chabad, Centreo Hebreo, the orthodox synagogue in Guatemala City; and a small group of Guatemalans trying to embrace Judaism, who then called themselves Casa Hillel. As our trip was composed of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist women, we chose Casa Hillel as probably the closest to our religious orientation. At the same time, we did not know what to expect. From the Casa Hillel website it was unclear whether or not the group was Messianic, Bnai Noach (a quasi Jewish group who follow laws while remaining Christian) or Anousim (Crypto-Jews) discovering their ancestral roots in Judaism. To be frank, we were nervous.
We arrived on Friday evening for Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath), having brought gifts of challah and tallitot (prayer shawls). Do you believe in love at first sight? I do now. I had never before met a group like this one. It was almost like meeting our big extended family; they hugged each of us as if we were long-lost relatives. Together we sang every prayer tune we all knew and they knew many!and led a pretty standard Reform service. We danced together, and through the barrier of language, a few of our Spanish-speakers and a few of their English-speakers, we forged a tie that is almost impossible to describe. Something clicked that night. They became our Guatemalan family and we became their Rabbi and teachers.
The 24 congregation members include four families with children, a number of single men, one sin-gle mom, and one gay man, who sought out Judaism when it became clear that Reform Judaism accepts homosexuals as equal and valued in the sight of God.
Only one person in the group can trace his ancestry back to Jews in pre-Inquisition Spain, though some have memories or beliefs to suggest that their families were Jews in the past. One is fully Mayan in ancestry. Most came from evangelical and Catholic backgrounds and were frustrated by what they perceived in their churches as hypocrisy, greed, sexual abuse, and/or a suppression of free thought and free inquiry. There are several members who were born Jewish and have joined the congregation because it is wonderful place to pray and a loving and embracing community.
Once in a while someone on vacation or on a tour will find the congregation and after one Shabbat with them, is also changed forever. This community adores Jewish ritual and prayer and practice it with full and unabashed joy. They have had many, many doors slammed in their faces in the past. And yet they somehow believed that one day, someone would see their sincerity and that Hashem (God) would answer their prayers.
My own life has been deeply touched by them, by their willingness, their passion for Judaism, their patience, their desire. Sometime after this mission they hesitantly asked if I would continue to teach them and lead them from afar and I said, without hesitation,si. From then on, it has been a love story.
Recently, I flew to Mexico to be at a conference of Latin American congregations along with the president of our Guatemalan community and her husband, where we found both resistance to the community (Are they legitimate Jews? Who are they? Why do they want to be Jewish?) and warmth and support. We found a donor in Canada who generously sponsored seven teens from the community to attend Jewish summer camp in Toronto, where they were able to attend synagogue services and sightsee.
During the spring break from university studies, I sent my son, a Jewish Studies major in college, to teach in the community for a week. And I was able to convince two friends from Toronto vacationing in Guatemala to teach members at the synagogue on Shabbat. Last Rosh Hashanah, when my colleague Rabbi Diana Lynn told me she had no pulpit responsibilities for the High Holy Days, I suggested she go and serve them, which she did through the help of Kulanu.
These were all gratifying experiences, but nothing could prepare me emotionally for the transformative weekend of February 8-10, 2013, when, with the generous support of Kulanu, I was blessed and honored to officiate at a formal conversion ceremony there.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder and Rabbi Claudio Kogan (a Spanish speaking Rabbi and mohel) accompanied me to Guatemala to make the requisite three rabbis for the Beit Din (house of law or Jewish religious court). We prepared all the traditional and essential elements: the prospective converts took a written exam (in Spanish) which all of them passed with flying colors; they learned how to chant Torah and three of them did it for the first time ever at the Shabbat morning service; each person went before the Beit Din to be questioned on both their sincerity and their knowledge; each adult male there were 12 in all had hatafat dam brit (a symbolic circumcision) on Sunday morning after which we all drove 40 minutes to a fully natural mountain thermal pool (a baptismal site!) and immersed in the mikvah, one candidate at a time. That same evening the whole community went back to the synagogue where three couples were married under a chupah (wedding canopy) with a proper and traditional ketubah (marriage document) in Hebrew and Spanish.
The highlight of the weekend was certainly the pre-mikvah service on Sunday morning, where a community that had been up until midnight the night before with the Beit Din, and whose men had gone through hatafat dam at seven a.m. that morning, stood as Jews at Sinai and received the Torah. With a Sefer Torah (Scroll of Five books of Moses) dressed in Guatemalan fabric in front of the room, and the three Rabbis as witnesses, they sang Shema Yisrael (the seminal Hebrew prayer in praise of the oneness of God).
Those who had converted took pledges of loyalty and fidelity to Judaism, promising to build Jewish homes and raise Jewish children. They searched their hearts and their souls and placed their lot and their fate with the Jewish people under all circumstances. They sang Ozi zimrat Yah: God is my Strength with full hearts and tears streaming down their eyes. All I can say is: the Jewish people are blessed with groups like these. My life as a Rabbi is much richer because of them.
We have formally chosen the name Adat Israel: Asociacin Judea Reformista de Guatemala as the name of the congregation. (Adat means congregation.) Our application to the World Union for Progressive Judaism was accepted, giving us recognition as Guatemala’s official Reform congregation. Nineteen people converted that special weekend; there are eight more waiting who need more time to prepare. We hope and pray to make this visit again next year with another Beit Din to convert those patient and practicing souls. And more will come–of this there is no doubt. The hunger for a pure spirituality in Latin America is strong. The need for Jewish leadership in this area is clear. The opportunities for outreach to this small and emerging community are abundant. They speak the language of Divine calling; of persistence, faith, and hope. All of us doing this work understand that language fluently.
*Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the spiritual leader of The City Shul in Toronto Canada and the founder of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning where she was director and principle teacher for 20 years. In 2005, Rabbi Goldstein was awarded North Americas highest honor for Jewish education, The Covenant Award For Outstanding Educators. In 2012, she agreed to serve at Kulanu’s regional cooredinator for Guatemala