A Spring Break Mitzvah: The Birth of the Huánuco Jewish Community

(In September 2007, Rabbi Peter Tarlow, director of Texas A&M University Hillel, received an early morning call asking him if he would be willing to help people convert and establish a Jewish community in Peru. Because Tarlow is fluent in Spanish and has worked with Jewish communities around South America, he agreed to a site visit in December which if successful would become a Hillel adventure in March. The site visit proved to be a success, it was clear that all medical and security precautions were in place, and that the visit would be of great benefit to both the local Jewish community and to the Hillel students. In March of 2008, Rabbi Tarlow took five of his Hillel students, three men and two women, to Huánuco to help establish this community.)

Three separate groups of people compose the nascent Jewish community of Huánuco, Peru. Some of its members are descended from Jews who came to the Peruvian highlands in the mid-19th century illegally. (The government did not permit Jews to live in these parts of Peru in the 19th century and registered all births as Catholics.) Due to their small numbers and pressure from the government, the general population soon absorbed these people and the 19th century community ceased to function.

Descendents from the Inquisition compose the second group. These people, like all Crypto-Jews, maintained some form of emotional ties to Judaism, but often knew little of their ancestral faith.

People who had become disillusioned with their former faith and had discovered the joys of being Jewish comprise the third group. All three groups came together and sought a way to reestablish a Liberal Jewish community and to reenter Jewish life as “reformative” Jews.

The Aggies Arrive

After my December visit, I asked students if they would accompany me to Peru. To avoid any bureaucratic problems the students and I decided to self-finance the journey through personal contributions and private donations. The Huánuco soon-to-be-community also provided additional support, which demonstrated a commitment on their part.

Due to funding necessities, only five of the eight students who applied to go on the journey were able to accompany me. These five students studied the history of Peruvian Jewish life and the culture of Peru prior to going. During the Texas A&M University Spring Break of 2008 these students set out for Peru via Panama. After landing in Lima and being met by numerous members of the about-to-be-born Jewish community, the “Aggies” (students at Texas A&M are called “Aggies”) went to the northern city of Trujillo, where they visited the remote pre-Inca ruins of Chan-chan and the “Huanaca de Luna” archeological site. After a 23-hour trip from Trujillo to Huánuco, the Aggies arrived at their final destination. Accompanied by a doctor, the Hillel student and I crossed some of the highest points on earth, reaching an altitude of almost 5,000 meters during our journey from Trujillo to Huánuco.

The area’s major rain storms and mud slides helped our group to decide that each perspective “convert” or perspective “reentry candidate” would be examined by an Aggie beit din and then, once the weather cleared, would go to mountains for the mikveh ceremony. All the male candidates had already undergone circumcision and were aware that they would have to undergo the ceremony of tipat dam.

The beit-din interview was rigorous and lasted the entire day. In fact the beit din asked four perspective converts to continue to study for another year. Each member of the 5-person, in succession, Beit Din questioned the candidate, testing the person’s knowledge of Jewish holidays and understanding of Jewish theology, from kashrut to Zionism. I translated all questions and answers.

The next day the rain cleared and the entire group traveled for over an hour on mud roads to a secluded spot in the Andes where they built a mikveh and permitted each person to undergo the immersion ceremony in the cold Andean waters. The tipat dam was done on the day of the mikveh, by a doctor along with me and witnessed by Jewish male A&M students.

Following the mikveh, the Hillel students witnessed a formal conversion and/or reentry ceremony and heard a testimony from each of the 12 new members of the Peruvian branch of the people of Israel.

Although some of the students did not speak Spanish, they were still able to feel the depth of emotion expressed. Friday provided still another emotional experience, the formal acceptance by the Peruvian government of the Huánuco Jewish community and its inscription in the national records. That afternoon the two Aggie female students worked with the Huánuco women in the preparation of challah, and all prepared to greet the first legal Sabbath to be held in that part of Peru.

At Erev-Shabbat services all present could feel history in the making. One young man had traveled 12 days through the jungle to become part of the Jewish community. Another person traveled over 14 hours of rough mountain and jungle terrain to reunite with the people whom he now called his. This was also a lesson on the concept of the oneness and unity of the Jewish people. Although many of the students did not understand the Spanish portion of the services or my sermons, all could follow the Hebrew parts and realized that wherever there is Hebrew spoken and Jews who care, then they too are at home. After spending a wonderful Sabbath with their new co-religionists and friends, the Texas A&M Hillel group left Peru on Sunday morning, March 16, and arrived back in college that night.

I will return to Peru on a yearly basis. If I can obtain sufficient funding, I hope to bring at least ten students with me next year. If you are interested in sponsoring a student for the 2009 Peru mitzvah trip please contact Rabbi Peter Tarlow at Texas A&M Hillel, 800 George Bush Dr., College Station, Texas, 77840, USA or via email at Hillel @ tamuhillel.org