About a year ago, I wrote an article for Kulanu about my journey to the Peruvian Highland city of Huánuco and its nascent Jewish community. In March of 2008, I traveled to Huánuco with five of my Hillel students to found a Jewish community approximately 400 kilometers from Peru’s capital city of Lima. During the past year these efforts began to root and enough progress was made to return to Huánuco, this time with eleven more students.
As reported last year, the city and province of Huánuco (about 400 kilometers northeast of Lima) had an active 19th century Jewish community. At the time Aschanazic Jews, who had come there for business, made up most of the community. These were people who had traveled up the Amazon River from Brazil, married, and were forced by 19th century Peruvian law to register their children as Catholics. The local Jewish community reports that there was even a rabbi in Huánuco, who, it was reported, died in a boating accident. During the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century other Jews found their way to Huánuco. These people were either Crypto-Jews (Lima was the Inquisition’s headquarters during Spanish rule in South America) or people who no longer accepted Catholicism and were seeking other religious expressions. With the advent of computers and modern genealogy, many of these people began to research their roots and rediscovered their Jewish heritage.
These e-missions of rediscovery may have been the impetus for the formation of a new Jewish community last year. After many discussions and numerous telephone calls, about 20 people came together for a formal conversion ceremony, and in March of 2008 the community was legally recognized as a full religious community by the government. This recognition provided more than mere legality; it also permitted the community to own property and apply for national grants.
It is against this background that Texas A&M Hillel sent an additional 11 students to Huánuco during its Spring break in March 2009. This year’s students came with three clear goals to accomplish — (1) strengthen the ties of the Huánuco Jewish community with Texas A&M Hillel, (2) provide the needed man/woman power to create synagogue life in Huánuco, and (3) permit another 14 people to convert to Judaism.
The Hillel students arrived in Huánuco after a 25-hour bus ride from Lima due to mudslides. Once there, I divided the students into three groups. One group worked on building such items as a new bimah for the synagogue, one group painted walls, and five of the men aided me in questioning candidates for admission into Judaism. The following day (with the weather now permitting) all candidates were taken to a mountain mikveh for immersion and the ritual of tipat dam was then performed on all of the men (all were previously circumcised by a Jewish doctor).
On March 18th the Jewish community of Huánuco grew by 14 people. The conversion and reentry ceremony were performed in their new synagogue. That evening the first Jewish wedding to take place in Huánuco in over 150 years was also celebrated. To add to the miracle of this rebirth, Jews and potential Jews from around Peru have contacted Huánuco’s now functioning Jewish community.
Needless to say, there are still many challenges ahead for Huánuco’s Jewish community. There is the need to establish an orderly budget process, to divide community responsibilities, and to develop an ongoing plan for Jewish education. However, there is now, despite all of the difficulties, a functioning Jewish community in Huánuco. Unlike the 19th century community, this is a legal community that can register both births and marriages. Full services are planned this year for the Jewish High Holidays.