INTRODUCTION BY RABBI PETER TARLOW
The following article by Daneel Schaechter is a wonderful look into the world of Klal-Yisrael (literally, the entire House of Israel, or metaphorically, the love of Judaism and Jewish people). Daneel comes from a Yiddish speaking environment and has chosen to live a modern Orthodox lifestyle. He volunteered to teach in Huánuco and had several lengthy conversations with me regarding his role and the need to work within a reformative pseudo-Sephardic environment. As Daneel’s report indicates, he was up to the task. He gave a great deal of himself in the process and received a lifetime of memories and experiences. On a personal note, I feel thankful to have made his acquaintance and hope that we shall remain friends across the miles for many years to come.
This summer I volunteered for five weeks in a tiny, remote Jewish community in Huánuco, Peru, located some 10 hours by bus from Peru’s capital city of Lima. My role, as explained to me by Rabbi Peter Tarlow, Hillel director at Texas A & M University, would be teacher, tutor and cantor. The community, which contacted Rabbi Tarlow in 2007 for help in establishing a viable and knowledgeable Jewish community, has 40 members, most of whom have converted in the last five years.
Three distinct groups make up this “reformative” congregation. One group is descended from Ashkenazi Jews who settled in the Peruvian highland in the mid-19th century and eventually assimilated into the general population. A second group is descended from Crypto-Jews who went underground to avoid persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. These people have maintained emotional ties to Judaism although most knew little of their ancestral faith. The third group is made up of Jews by choice, individuals who were unhappy as Christians and have found joy and meaning in Judaism. My experience meeting and teaching the men, women and children of this community over my five weeks in Peru was more meaningful that I could have imagined.
RESPONSIBILITIES ON THE GROUND
Before I arrived in Peru, Rabbi Tarlow advised me that community members were illiterate in Hebrew. One of my jobs, then, would be to teach Hebrew so the community could pray together using the original text. During my visit, the community would also be celebrating its first Bar Mitzvah (coming of age ritual for Jewish boys of 13 years) in over 100 years to welcome a boy into the community of Israel as an adult. My job would be to prepare the Bar Mitzvah boy Rolando Holzmann for his big day. A third responsibility would be to lead weekly services in my role as a cantor. And lastly, I would teach an introductory course on Judaism (holidays, traditions, etc.), for everyone in the community, but with the objective of preparing several people in the community for conversion to Judaism.
In the mornings I often taught both Hebrew and Judaism for older, retired members of the community who shmoozed and practiced Hebrew with me from 8-10 am. The reason I use the word “often” is because in Peru, as I’ve learned, things “often” do not get done or people may not show up. Nonetheless, the active members of the community tried to come as often as commitments allowed. In the afternoon, from 3-4:30 pm, I worked with Rolando to help him prepare for his reading of the Torah. Evenings, between 7 and 10 pm, I offered communal classes in Hebrew and Jewish traditions. I found teaching in Spanish all day very tiring and a challenge. My Spanish language skills, acquired in high school and college Spanish classes, are serviceable, but I am not yet fluent. The community knew no English. Nevertheless, the experience was rewarding.
AN INTERESTING ISSUE
Although the community has chosen to affiliate with the Reform/Renewal movements, it does not count women in the minyan (ten men/women required for communal prayer). In time, I realized that the community did not understand the differences among the denominations. Instead, they picked and chose rituals and traditions they found appealing from reading or from the Internet and then incorporated them into their practice. Choices often reflected their own cultural norms. I believe that was the case with the counting of women. As a result, the community’s communal practice appeared random and lacked a certain cohesion.
Near the end of my stay in Peru, Rabbi Tarlow joined me in Huánuco, and together, we tried to explain the differences between orthodox, conservative, reform and reconstructionist Judaism. We talked about customs, rituals and practices and which ones made sense to them and would help them to create a flourishing, self-sustainable community. The Rabbi and I also suggested that members of the community should focus less on practicing their Hebrew and more on traditions, holidays, and Jewish philosophy. We emphasized that while Hebrew is important, it is more meaningful in the context of a more enlightened practice and knowledge.
Another suggestion was to add more Spanish to the Friday night service so community members would feel more connected and engaged while praying. They would understand the words and meanings expressed in the service. And finally, Rabbi Tarlow suggested that the community encourage more members to involve themselves in leadership issues to insure the perpetuation of the community. To put all the responsibility into the hands of one individual would be risky, as the community might not be sustainable with his demise.
The last few days of my sojourn in Huánuco were especially significant and beautiful. Rabbi Tarlow and I converted two women, Yesenia Araujo Horna and Yelitza Sanchez Ortiz, one man Miguel Bohórquezz and a two-year-old Angelita. Rabbi Tarlow conducted the Beit Din (Jewish court) for the three adult conversions-one at a time. The Beit Din consisted of Rabbi Tarlow, a community leader who had already converted and me. In each case, the individual was asked a series of questions to ensure he/she had studied and prepared for the conversion. Some questions focused on particular Jewish traditions and holidays to test their knowledge and commitment to their new faith. Others looked to the future and focused on Jewish marriage, raising Jewish children, a commitment to synagogue attendance and a continued study of Judaism with the resources the community has on hand. And still others were to ensure that each person was sincere in giving up Catholicism. As all three adults have parents and families who practice Catholicism, Rabbi Tarlow emphasized the importance of respecting their families and their families” religious traditions.
The Beth Din was conducted in an open-ended format to allow each convert to respond to questions and to talk about his or her personal feelings about Judaism and the conversion process. Each Beit Din lasted 30 minutes. After all three individuals completed the process successfully and were accepted for conversion, it was time for the mikvah (ritual bath of flowing water) to complete the conversion process through immersion and prayer.
The community uses a hidden freshwater river, a tributary of the Huallaga River as a mikvah. The spring is located in a remote gorge, a 40-minute drive from Huánuco. Community leaders claimed the spot for their mikvah five years ago in preparation for the conversions that would follow. They identified their spot by writing the Hebrew word Shalom (peace) on a large stone just above the gorge. The two women were attended by a converted female member of the community. Rabbi Tarlow and I accompanied the male convert. After the mikvah ceremonies, we returned to the synagogue to sign the documents of conversion and to prepare for the Bar Mitzvah, which would be held on Friday evening as severe weather conditions were predicted for the following day.
For the Bar Mitzvah, I led a Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat (a service welcoming the Sabbath using Shlomo Carlebach’s music) and Maariv (evening service) and an abbreviated Torah service in which Rolando read eight verses from an original 1870 Lithuanian Torah scroll. After the reading, he gave a Bar Mitzvah sermon and Rabbi Tarlow spoke to him about this significant event in his life. Attendees included five members of Rolando’s non-Jewish family. (Rolando and his grandmother converted by choice several years ago, but his mother, stepfather and step-siblings are practicing Catholics.)
As Rolando read from the Torah, Rabbi Tarlow and I helped him with a few words here and there. He did a wonderful job and made me proud. As he recited his Torah portion, I looked at the audience and saw some people tearing up. They were so proud. For every single Peruvian in that room, this was the first Bar Mitzvah they had ever attended. And it was the first Bar Mitzvah in Huánuco in over 100 years. Rabbi Tarlow gave a speech about continuity of tradition and the beauty of reading the Torah and what it meant for the community to be continuing in the footsteps of their ancestors. Throughout the speech, Rolando was beaming in a way I’d never seen before.
We moved to the dining room and went around the table, where everyone said something special to our Bar Mitzvah. One older man, Shanti, broke into tears while talking about how Rolando is the future of Judaism in Huánuco. I’m still not sure what exactly he said that made me bawl but he spoke with such emotion. It was like a chain reaction and I couldn’t hold back my tears.
Back home, I was filled with pride with what the Jewish community in Huánuco was able to achieve this summer, and filled with joy that I was able to help them on their journey. I hope and pray that they continue to practice Judaism and that the community grows in knowledge and practice.
Rabbi Peter Tarlow is Hillel Director at Texas A & M University. He has visited Huánuco five times in the last five years. He also has brought student groups on a regular basis to the community. Rabbi Tarlow is fluent in Spanish and writes a weekly Torah column that is read and studied weekly not only by the Jews of Huánuco but also by other small Jewish communities in both Peru and Bolivia. Tarlow conducts a regular Skype meeting with the community’s president.)
Daneel Schaechter is a 20-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania with a double major in Latin America Studies and Linguistics. He grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New York City. After graduating from Hunter College High School, he spent a year studying in an orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem where he honed his Jewish knowledge and skills.
Daneel volunteered with Kulanu as a senior in high school when he became interested in Jewish communities in Latin America and has continued to volunteer periodically as a translator with Kulanu’s Spanish-speaking communities.