By Rabbi Peter Tarlow, 2008
Rosh Ha’Shanah 5768 dawned in the most unusual of ways. The holiday began with a 6am call from Peru. On the other end of the line was a young man speaking to me in Spanish who said he was from Huánuco (pronounced WA-noo-coh) Peru and that he had received my name from a group of Crypto-Jews and Jews-by-Choice in Guatemala City. After ascertaining that he was telling me the truth, this young man, whose name is Juan Jimenez began to tell me a strange story.
According to Juan, the city of Huánuco (about 400 kilometers northeast of Lima) had once had a Jewish community. The community was composed primarily of Ashkenazic Jews who had come there for business, settled, and over the course of time married. As early 20th century Peru only permitted the registry of civil status, marriage, and children via the Catholic Church, the population gradually died out and entered into some minimal state of Catholicism.
Over the years the area received other people potentially interested in Judaism. Usually these 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. This religious spiritual quest has increased in this new Millennium.
Juan wanted to know if I would help the community to (1) formally convert to some form of Liberal Judaism and (2) establish itself within World Jewry. He said that Lima’s established community chose not to become involved or to help this nascent Jewish community. Exactly why the Lima community chose not to become involved with this potential new Jewish group is not known. Due to being rejected, the community called me and asked if I was willing to help.
After several additional telephone conversations, it was decided that nothing could be accomplished without a first-hand visit. This visit took place during the last week of December 2007. The Huánuco community was told that as an act of good faith and sincerity it would have to fund my trip to Peru and that nothing would be done until I had met with each potential convert and determined their knowledge of Judaism.
What follows is a first hand-report of this extraordinary experience in Peru’s interior. Being in this part of Peru was like walking into the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel. It was a walk back into history. The locale is 4500 meters high, a mixture of highlands and jungle. This is not a place for weak stomachs, but fascinating to say the least.
During my stay in Peru, I met with a wide variety of people who are interested in conversion. Each person had his/her particular and unique story to tell. Some of these people were seeking to reclaim their lost religious heritage; others argued that their families had always maintained Judaism in secret. Still others admitted to no Jewish heritage or blood ties, but after studying various religious creeds had discovered and come to love Judaism. These were not people seeking aliya or emigration.
I decided to spend a day giving each person a chance to meet privately with me. During these conversations, I asked people to tell me their reasons for desiring to convert, I tried to hear if they were sincere or not, and to learn how they had come to this decision in a land so far from major Jewish population centers.
After a day of intensive interviews, we began a two-day (December 25 and December 26) series of lectures on Judaism. I lectured in Spanish on the sociology of Judaism, the Jewish calendar, Jewish lifecycle events, Jewish customs, Jewish history, and the geography of the Jewish world. Questions were asked (most knowledge of Judaism comes from what these people learn from Spanish language Internet sources) and misperceptions or misunderstandings of basic Judaism were corrected. At the end of these two days, miracles occurred.
The first miracle was that we were able to establish a system for brit-milah, and found a place for ritual emersion (mikveh) in a secluded river. Then, as if the sun decided to shine on the community, the Huánuco Jewish community received the free use of a house. This house will become the first Jewish community center in the Peruvian Highlands in over a century.
The trip ended with specifics being determined and with a plan. After some discussion it was decided that at least 12 people wanted to undergo a formal Liberal Jewish conversion. I will bring at least three male Texas A&M Hillel students with me during their March spring break. The students will help as witness for brit-milah, mikveh and form a beit-din. They will also work with the local Jewish community in repainting and renovating the building that will serve as Huánuco’s synagogue. It was also decided that the community would self-finance. This is important because people tend to appreciate what they have paid for and it will prevent outsiders giving contradictory advice that can destroy the community. The Jewish world has a tendency to have too many cooks in one kitchen and it was decided that a strong and caring leadership with a single vision is need if the community is to go beyond its infancy.
If all goes well and as planned, the formal Articles of Incorporation will be signed; then on Friday night, March 14, the first Jewish service will take place in Huánuco in over a 100 years. Needless to say, there are still many problems to overcome. Because the community is mainly composed of young people, marriages will have to be performed and children will need a Jewish education. A Jewish cemetery will also have to be dedicated. These are not easy problems to overcome, but as Herzl so clearly stated, “Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah/if you will it, it is no dream.”
Once established, this new Jewish community plans on developing a center of Jewish studies to permit other people to find the beauty of Judaism. It is very much hoped that Kulanu will be an integral part of the growth of South American Judaism. Miracles do happen.
The author is Texas A&M Hillel Director and Rabbi.