Teaching Fellows: Reflections from Guatemala

By Margo Hughes-Robins, Kulanu Teaching Fellow from Jewish Theological Seminary, New York City

Community members of all ages gather in the synagogue to read  Spanish Nevi’im texts in chevruta study as part of a weekly evening  class on the Hebrew prophets.
Community members of all ages gather in the synagogue to read Spanish Nevi’im texts in chevruta study as part of a weekly evening class on the Hebrew prophets.

This past summer, I had the distinct privilege of serving as part of the inaugural cohort of the Kulanu Global Teaching Fellows. I spent the month of July teaching in Guatemala City with Congregation Adat Israel, a 35-person community associated with the Reform movement. For such a small community, it is surprisingly diverse: members include not only native Guatemalans, but also people who have moved from Mexico, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Congregants cite different reasons for seeking out a Reform Jewish community rather than attempt to join the more-established Orthodox synagogues in the city.

Ethnic and economic discrimination has certainly played a large role in Adat Israel’s genesis, but community members also spoke excitedly about embracing a Jewish way of life that celebrated equal ritual roles for people of all genders, LGBT inclusion, and avenues to remain connected to wider Guatemalan culture. “We have to live in both worlds: We have to have space to live in the Guatemalan society and the Jewish society,” says cantorial soloist Rebeca Orantes.

While Adat Israel is served long-term by volunteer Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, a Canada-based Reform rabbi, my four-week stay was the longest visit from a rabbi or rabbinical student in Adat Israel’s history. While almost all congregants work full-time, every other evening we held classes at the synagogue on subjects ranging from Nevi’im (Prophets) text study and Spanish-Portuguese Torah trope to liberal Jewish theology. Additionally, congregants stay at the synagogue Shabbaton-style each weekend, going home between Kabbalat Shabbat and Shacharit but praying, learning, and schmoozing together until Havdalah.

The community’s enthusiasm for Torah is deep, rich, and hard-won: every member of Adat Israel has either undergone or is in the midst of the Jewish conversion process. As a Jew-by-choice myself, I felt blessed to spend my first congregational experience as a student-rabbi within a community where my own Jewish journey was a source of connection with everyone in the synagogue. We could share together the excitement of discovering ritual preference in the absence of minhag avoteinu (custom of our fathers)—although several members of Adat Israel trace their ancestry to conversos who came to Guatemala in the Colonial Period—and in the struggle of straddling the divide between one’s home culture and Jewish faith-culture, and of identity recognition by the wider Jewish community. The latter has proved particularly painful. “There are so few Jews in the world, and anti-Semitism is unfortunately still an issue,” congregants point out. “So why wouldn’t Jewish people and communities want to stand together? Why wouldn’t they recognize us as their brothers and sisters?” It’s a question I, too, have asked and found most answers lacking.

But the community presses on with impressive commitment. Some families at Adat Israel have begun to raise children Jewishly while still waiting for that recognition and acceptance, years into their own conversion study. One family has waited over ten years for a Beit Din, while others have struggled for recognition and legitimacy after finding themselves entrapped by invalid conversioncourts, a problem in many places in Latin America.

While cognizant of my privilege as a white person who sought conversion in the United States, I appreciated the resonance between the thirst for Torah and for Jewish life at Adat Israel, and my own hunger for Judaism that pushed me towards conversion over a decade ago. I’m grateful to Kulanu’s Global Fellows program for the opportunity to have further discerned my own future rabbinate in a community different from my own, but so kindred in ruach (spirit).