Professor Robert Lande
Director, Scattered Among The Nations
August 18, 2002
“Zap – You’re Jewish” by Hirsh Goodman in the August 12 issue laments that a “scheme” by Chief Rabbi Lau resulted in 90 Peruvian Indians being “converted to Judaism in Lima in a record two weeks…” Goodman asks “why would Israel send out an official rabbinical delegation to convert these people to a religion they know nothing about?” He laments that “they cannot speak a word of Hebrew” and “don’t know a mohel from a shohet.” He sees the episode as nothing more than an attempt to obtain warm, nominally Jewish bodies to settle the West Bank after giving them “a crash course of 12 working days in how to transform from an Andes Indian into a settler Jew.”
If Mr. Goodman had joined me in my first visit to Peru in August 1996, however, I am certain that he would have written a very different column. I encountered a sincere community why had been studying Judaism for years (in some case decades) who wished, more than anything, to become Jews. They had been leading a Jewish life for many years, studying on their own and with the help of an American Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Zuber. As a Conservative Jew, I am in no position to judge whether they were worthy of Orthodox conversions in 1996. But there is no doubt that their Hebrew was better than mine, and that they knew a “mohel from a shohet” (they knew enough so that they only ate kosher meat). I can also testify that they were more knowledgeable and observant than the vast majority of American Jews.
During my visit I concluded that their desire to become Jewish was a sincere one, so I and others sent them Spanish-Hebrew books and tapes on Judaism, and Rabbi Zuber continued to visit and instruct them. They also repeatedly asked the Israeli Chief Rabbi’s Office to formally convert them. Finally, in early 2001 Rabbi Lau sent a Spanish Speaking Rabbi to determine whether they were sincere in their desire to become Jewish. He reported that they were, so a full Beit Din followed. The standards that they employed were extremely stringent — the Beit Din converted less than half of the community. The rest is the history that Mr. Goodman knows — with an unwritten chapter concerning the ones who could not pass the Beit Din’s rigorous tests and were left behind.
I was also puzzled by Mr. Goodman’s repeated references to their ethnicity. What difference does it make that they are “Indians”? He accuses them of having converted and made aliyah solely for economic reasons — does he ask the same question about white converts? Why does Mr. Goodman compare these “Andes Indians” so unfavorably to would-be Russian converts? The Chief Rabbi’s Office is to be commended for looking beyond their brown skin and instead focusing on what was in their hearts and souls: a sincere desire to become Jewish.