In December 2012, Kulanu board member Rabbi Bonita Sussman and her husband Rabbi Gerald Sussman of Staten Island, New York visited Nicaragua in response to a request by Kulanu South American coordinator Daneel Schaechter.
Schaechter had been in touch with Kurt Preiss, the current president of Congregacion Israelita de Nicaragua (Israelite Congregation of Nicaragua), who requested help in normalizing the status of some members. The small congregation was composed of the remnants of the Jewish community that had been established at the turn of the 20th century by European refugees and destroyed during the country’s civil war. Preiss hoped that the process would also stabilize the community.
According to Preiss, many of the most active and devoted members of his congregation were unable to participate fully in congregational life, be counted in a minyan (ten people required for communal prayer) or given an aliyah (be called to the Torah to recite blessings). Al though self-identifying as Jews and living Jewish lives, they nevertheless were considered “participants” rather than full members of the congregation. The reason was that their mothers or grandmothers were not Jewish according to Jewish law. As orthodox and conservative Judaism recognizes only matrilineal descent, and the congregation is traditional, these individuals were not considered Jewish either.
Many of the “participants” even had Sephardi or Ashkenazi names and heritage. And all of them had undergone years of study in the hope that they might someday appear before a Beit Din (Jewish court of law) and undergo a formal conversion according to Jewish law.
The rabbis Sussman decided to help by taking on the task of convening a Beit Din of three rabbis, with orthodox credentialing, prepared to travel to Nicaragua for the purpose of converting those individuals who were deemed ready to do so. Beforehand, however, Bonita developed a comprehensive set of protocols for the conversion process, which included a lengthy questionnaire for prospective converts to fill out prior to the arrival of the Beit Din. Their essays, studied by the rabbis before their trip, would begin the process of evaluating the knowledge and commitment of prospective converts who would be interviewed in person once the three rabbis arrived in Nicaragua.
In the end, the Beit Din converted 14 individuals including a little girl and a boy of five years old who underwent a circumcision to be eligible for conversion. The male adult candidates who were already circumcised underwent a hatafat dam brit (the drawing of a drop of blood in token of the covenant of circumcision) and everyone was immersed in the mikveh (the ritual bath that had been built from specifications and a blue-print given to the community by mikveh experts).
The next day, community members gathered to receive the documentation of their conversion in a public ceremony. The event concluded joyously with the rabbis conducting three marriages of chuppah and kiddushin (Jewish wedding canopy and special wedding blessings).
It is wonderful to report that through the efforts of Kulanu, the community has been given new life. The congregation now regularly holds services and classes; the chevra kaddisha (burial society) was reestablished to bury their teacher who just died, and this spring the community celebrated their Pessach seder and Yom Hashoah commemoration with full hearts. An additional post script: one newly converted member has donated 4000 square feet of property to build a synagogue since members have been meeting in each others homes.
For more information on the congregation, please click on this web site, created by Kulanu volunteer Odelia Sussman Epstein: http://congregacionisraelitadenicaragua.weebly.com