Colombian descendants of crypto-Jews rediscover their roots

In less than 30 years, a fully functional Jewish community has developed in Bello, Colombia, composed mostly of converts to Judaism whose families were once Jewish

The Media Line|
About 300 Jews belong to the Jewish community in Bello, a small city in Colombia. They attend synagogue, keep the Jewish dietary laws, and study the Torah. Less than 30 years ago, the community members did not understand themselves to be Jewish—but since then, many have rediscovered the Jewish roots and hidden traditions that their grandparents had camouflaged, fearing persecution, and embarked on a journey back to Judaism.
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Their synagogue, which blends in with the other cement homes in a modest neighborhood, is daily used by the members of the congregation as the center of their Jewish life, house of prayer, and meeting place.
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Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
(Photo: Shai Levene/The Media Line)
The process of creating a Jewish community in Bello, in the Antioquia Department of northwestern Colombia, was led by Rabbi Elad Villegas, who himself converted to Judaism after serving as pastor of an evangelical church with 3,000 members.
“The most important decision that I made was to quit as pastor of the church and convert to Judaism,” Villegas, who now serves as the main rabbi of the community in Bello, said.
Villegas explained that he traveled to Israel in 1998 in his position as pastor. “I was very surprised to see the similarity between the Jewish and Israeli cultures and the culture of Antioquia,” he said.
A few years later, Villegas decided to return to Israel in search of answers to some of his most troublesome theological questions. After conversations with Israeli rabbis, Villegas decided to convert to Judaism.
“What was not in my calculation is that about 600 people of the church would follow me into Judaism,” he said.
Antioquia, one of Colombia’s 32 departments, is known for being the site of a large Jewish migration from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, 500 years ago. Many of the Jews who came to Colombia from Spain had converted to Catholicism and continued to practice Judaism in secret. Such Jews are known as crypto-Jews, or Marranos, from the Spanish word for pig.
Alberto Antonio Berón Ospina, a professor specializing in Latin American history at the Technological University of Pereira in Colombia, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that even though Antioquia is majority Christian, its culture is highly influenced by Sephardic Jewish traditions. He noted that the local dialect is influenced by Ladino, also known as Judeo-Spanish, and that the buildings also bear resemblance to Sephardic Jewish architecture styles.
Rabbi Ezra Rodriguez, 43, who is a member of the Jewish community in Bello, told The Media Line that his grandparents maintained some apparently Jewish traditions despite calling themselves Christian.
His maternal grandparents “had a very particular life,” Rodriguez said. “My grandfather would never uncover his head, arguing that it is a sign of respect for God, and he would not go to Sunday services at church because they would make him remove his hat.”
“My grandfather used to say that Jesus was a man who spoke very nicely about the Bible, that is all.”
He noted that his grandfather would buy meat from the marketplace only occasionally, and only after witnessing its slaughter. “There was no pork in my grandparents’ house, either,” he said. His grandparents also made him wash his hands before eating and say grace before and after meals.
On the patio of his grandparents’ house, Rodriguez said, “my grandfather built a stone oven which was out of service for the whole year, but for Easter, which is commonly at the same time as Passover, he used to clean the house, tell us that this week must be welcomed with cleanliness, and enable the oven only for food that does not contain wheat.”
Rodriguez’s grandparents also used the interjection “nu,” commonly used in Hebrew and among Jewish communities to mean “go on.”
“Their idea about Jesus was very different from how he is conceived in Christianity,” Rodriguez added. “My grandfather used to say that Jesus was a man who spoke very nicely about the Bible, that is all.”
Yehudit Agudelo, 37, who is married to Rodriguez, shared similar stories about her grandparents with The Media Line.
“My grandma said she used to hear her grandmother and aunt speak in weird Spanish,” she said, referring to Ladino.
“My grandma used to give charity to people in need every day, but not on Saturdays, saying that it is a day when we do not give charity,” she said.
Agudelo and Rodriguez both belonged to Rabbi Villegas’ evangelical community. They were friends who shared a curiosity about Judaism and their family history. When Villegas announced his conversion to Judaism, they decided to join him.
Today, Rodriguez serves as a rabbi for the Bello Jewish community and as the community’s academic director. He scribes the community’s mezuzot, special scrolls of parchment on which a prayer is written that are hung on doorposts. He checks the writing in the Torah scrolls to make sure no imperfections have arisen. He also serves as the ritual slaughterer for the community and helps perform traditional Jewish burials.
His wife, Agudelo, a food engineer, helps Rodriguez with the process of certifying adherence to kashrut, or Jewish dietary law. She also gives classes to women in the community and prepares traditional Jewish headscarves for women to wear.
4 View gallery
Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
Bello Synagogue’s morning prayer service, April 24, 2023
(Photo: Shai Levene/The Media Line)
The community eventually found a rabbi in Miami who helped with education. They began to work on establishing a synagogue, buying the necessary Jewish ritual objects, and saving up money to buy a Torah scroll.
Members of a U.S. rabbinical court visited Bello in 2008, and 72 members of the community took the opportunity to formally convert to Judaism. Gradually, the rest of the community converted as well, Villegas said. In 2013, Villegas traveled to Israel to study in the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem where he was ordained as a rabbi.
Currently, he said, “the community has 300 members, around 60 families, because many are already in Israel or the United States looking to be part of stronger Jewish communities and attend yeshivahs,” or traditional Jewish educational institutions.
Although some prefer to seek a bigger Jewish community, Bello’s community provides all the services needed in Jewish life. Eighty percent of the community members live in the neighborhood of Las Cabañas, where they keep all the traditional Jewish laws, including resting on Saturdays, observing dietary laws, and praying daily in a group of at least 10 men.
The children study Torah in the afternoons, and the classes are also broadcast online. “Currently, 90 children from all over the country attend these Torah classes virtually,” Villegas said.
The community acquired a plot of land within a non-Jewish cemetery to use for traditional Jewish burial. Surrounded by thousands of Christian graves adorned with crosses and flowers, you can see a handful of Jewish gravestones engraved with a star of David and rocks scattered on them. “It has 60 double spaces, so it has the capacity for 120 people,” Villegas said, “and that way gives a solution for such an important need that our community has.”
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A gravestone in the Bello community cemetery, April 24, 2023
A gravestone in the Bello community cemetery, April 24, 2023
A gravestone in the Bello community cemetery, April 24, 2023
(Photo: Shai Levene/The Media Line)
The Bello community has also absorbed many converts to Judaism from different countries who hope to become part of a Jewish community.
Yosef Baruch Torres, 54, had lived in Costa Rica for more than 20 years but decided to move back to Colombia in order to be part of this emerging Jewish community. He found it difficult to practice Judaism in Costa Rica without being part of a congregation, he told The Media Line.
Torres converted to Judaism before moving to Costa Rica. “I was always close to Judaism,” he said. “My father worked with Jewish families, so we always had this close-up affection for the Jewish community. Later, we found out that my great-grandmother was Moroccan. My grandmother used to cook us food that we did not know was typical of the Middle East.”
“Then I started this pursuit, accepted the Torah,” he continued. He converted to Judaism and had a ritual circumcision performed. After struggling to practice Judaism in Costa Rica, Torres contacted Villegas, who welcomed him into the community. Torres’s son, whom Villegas helped to enroll in an Israeli yeshiva, is soon to enlist in the Israeli army.
Avraham David Vila Rodriguez, 44, came to Bello from Cuba eight months ago, seeking better conditions for Jewish practice for himself and his family.
4 View gallery
A bar mitzvah boy reads from the Torah at Bello Synagogue, April 24, 2023
A bar mitzvah boy reads from the Torah at Bello Synagogue, April 24, 2023
A bar mitzvah boy reads from the Torah at Bello Synagogue, April 24, 2023
(Photo: Shai Levene/The Media Line)
Vila Rodriguez has been observant for 10 years. He struggled to practice Judaism in Cuba, he said, because of the country’s communist nature. “I decided to come to Colombia especially to join this community that has done solid work that sticks out in Latin America,” he told The Media Line.
“I crossed to Colombia illegally from Venezuela, running away from the border police. Each member of my family just brought a backpack with them,” he explained. He noted that in Bello, the family found a place to live, kosher food, and access to Jewish ritual items.
Bello is one of several emerging Jewish communities in Colombia. Chief Rabbi of Colombia Alfredo Goldschmidt told The Media Line that the trend of Jewish communities composed mostly of converts broke out in the early 2000s. While such communities exist across Latin America, Goldschmidt said, Colombia is the organizational leader.
Goldschmidt attributed the trend to the centrality of religion in Colombian culture. “They are believers, and an important percentage of the converts have an origin of Jewish blood,” he said. “But also, many were frustrated in the Catholic Church and went over to evangelical [Christianity]. Some of them went over to messianic [Judaism], which is also quite a local phenomenon as they try to keep Judaism, but they believe in Jesus.”
"We would like to have greater reciprocation from the State of Israel toward our community"
He estimated that about 12 such emerging communities exist throughout Colombia, as well as many more small groups lacking the structure of the larger communities.
Until five years ago, most of these groups were growing, but now the size of the sector seems to have evened out, he said. He attributed the phenomenon mainly to the high percentage of emigration to Israel. “If at one point there were 2,000 emerging Jews, out of 2,000, more than 500 are already in Israel,” he said.
He said that some of the community members have had trouble moving to Israel because the government does not always recognize them as Jewish.
“We would like to have greater reciprocation from the State of Israel toward our community,” Villegas said, noting that many younger members of the community have served in the Israeli military.
“We hope that in the political arena and all the relations that we have been working on, this will improve,” he said.
The story is written by Debbie Mohnblatt Reprinted with permission from The Media Line.
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