Interview: The “New Jews” of Latin America
Journalist Graciela Mochkofsky, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is Catholic, had long been curious about Jewish life in Latin America. While living in Buenos Aires in 2003, she came across the story of a Peruvian man who had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and finally to ultra-Orthodox Judaism, eventually bringing a community of more than 100 followers with him to Israel.
Mochkofsky believed that this case of unmediated collective conversion to Judaism was isolated, finding just a couple of modern precedents during her reporting about the community. But it turned out to be just the beginning of years of research into what she calls a phenomenon: dozens of group conversions across Latin America to Orthodox Judaism by groups of former Catholics with no Jewish ancestry.
Her latest piece, “The Faithful,” which ran in The California Sunday Magazine in April, tells the story of René Cano (now Shlomo Caro) and Juan Carlos Villegas (now Elad), who led hundreds of members of their church in Bello, a suburb of Medellín, Colombia once known as “the capital of the assassins,” to convert to Orthodox Judaism. We spoke to Mochkofsky about her reporting experiences and what’s driving this wave of “emerging Jews” across Latin America.
What led you to write this story?
When I finished [writing about the Peruvian converts], I started getting emails from other people in Latin America, mostly rabbis and then Shlomo—one of the characters in the story—saying that they were also trying to convert and that they were very interested in talking to me. I realized that the story was really that there was this smaller wave of conversion throughout Latin America from Catholicism to Judaism through some kind of Protestant identity, mostly evangelicals and sometimes Pentecostal.
Over 90 percent of the [Latin American] population was Catholic in the early 1970s. And now you have 69 percent. There are millions of people who have abandoned Catholicism. Most of them have become some kind of evangelical, and then within these new communities, you find these smaller groups of people who kept on moving and ended up being Jewish and abandoning Christianity altogether.
How did you come across this specific community?
They couldn’t find any help from the local Jews in Medellín, so they started reaching out to outsiders. One of the things they did is find me and invite me to visit.
They asked me, “Would you write about us?” At first I thought, no, because I was writing about this other community. And then I thought, wait a minute, what is he talking about? There are other communities who converted?
The old story in Latin America is that you have all these people who can trace their Jewish roots back to the time of the Spanish conquest of America, who were “hidden Jews,” who are kind of returning to that identity. That’s an older, more covered story in Latin America. And in the beginning, I thought maybe these new communities were connected to that, and I was not interested in that. There are a lot of people writing about those cases.
You note in the story that this community is part of a larger trend throughout Latin America of conversion to Judaism. How did you discover the trend, and how big is it? What’s driving it?
Once I learned about the Colombians through Shlomo, I was invited to a conference in early 2009 in Colombia about Latin American Jewish communities. While I was there, I met some rabbis from Guatemala, from El Salvador, from Peru, from Ecuador, from Mexico and the U.S., and they all told me how they were starting to see these new groups of Christians who wanted to be Jews. I started digging deeper. I reached out to the rabbis who were converting these communities and then one group led to the other, and that’s how I started mapping the phenomenon. Because there’s no data on this phenomenon, I needed to do it.
In my map I have about 60 communities in 14 countries in Latin America, from Mexico to Chile. There are a few where there’s none, like Argentina for instance, and Uruguay. But in most other countries, it’s happening.
Some people exaggerate how many [are in their communities]. I think it’s in the low tens of thousands for now, around 10,000 or 15,000. I think Colombia is the one with the largest number of communities now—about 30—from the Andes to the coast.
It is growing. It’s been growing. You only had this one Peruvian community in the 1980s and the early 1990s, and now you have 60 communities. For hundreds of years, you had this monopoly of religion in Latin America. It was really hard to not be Catholic. That started changing the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the reasons is the Protestant movement. American Protestant churches and leaders decided in the 1950s to go to Latin America. When they lost China to Mao, they lost a big territory, so there was a petition in the 1950s to go to Latin America.
My hypothesis is that once people decided that they could get away with not being Catholic, they decided they didn’t need to be Christian, and they had this freedom to become whatever they wanted—which is very 21st-century.
Almost everyone speaks about this search for religious identity and how the search starts when they stop being Catholic. So when some pastor comes or when someone in the family has become an evangelical, that’s when they start looking. Some of these evangelical churches have an interest in the Old Testament. So they start reading the Old Testament. They have a connection to Israel within the evangelical movement. There is this idea in some Christian movements… that they have to be closer to Israel, or they have to convert to Judaism so the messiah will come.
This community jumped through so many hoops to become Jews—including adult circumcision and paying thousands and thousands of dollars just to learn—and yet faced skepticism and rejection at every turn, whether from local rabbis or from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate itself. They upended their lives to convert. Why?
They are convinced. You see the cases of people who have been through the rejection from their families and the traditional Jews in their countries and have persevered, and they finally got where they wanted. But you don’t see that many who drop out in the middle. When this specific community started, there were 600 following Juan Carlos; now you have only around 250. So a lot of people did not make it—they found it too hard. So I guess the answer is that they really believe in this. They are determined. They are willing to go through hardship and rejection to become Jewish. That’s what they want.
If you talk to the leadership of the Jewish community in Bogotá, they want to wait and see if they’re still Jewish in 10 20, 30 years. Part of the rejection is to test their seriousness, or their honesty. What I understand from these leaders in the traditional Jewish community in Bogotá is that they’re really suspicious of the reasons behind these conversions. Not everybody—some are more open. But in most of these 14 countries where you have these converts, you always find a clash with the traditional Jewish communities. Nowhere are they integrated. There are very few bridges. It’s really two separate Jewish lives: You have one that is very religious, and then you have a very secular Jewish life. But you also have a big social divide, because these new Jews are also working-class, from impoverished parts of these countries, and you find that a lot of the traditional Jewish life is more well off, or middle-class. I think part of the suspicion is that these new Jews are social climbers. That’s the prejudice behind it. And I think part of the appeal of the conversion is that you become someone with a new identity that connects with a richer cultural history, but also with an intellectual, cultural background that they didn’t have in their Catholic starting point. And they see that they now belong to an identity that is in the news all the time. But for now, all these new Jews, they have a harder life than they had before. They have the same social and political situation, but they also have to fight to become Jews.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in reporting this story?
I didn’t know it was such a widespread phenomenon. The extent of that, and the fact that now, in some countries, the “new” or “emerging” Jews are outnumbering the traditional Jewish communities. In some cities, the only Jews you find are the new Jews.
What has the response been like?
For now, it’s been great. There are a lot of people who are interested in this subject, in Latin America or in Judaism. Or they are surprised because very few people know about the phenomenon. I’m sharing notes with other scholars and journalists.
There have been a lot of readers who… have no investment in this specific subject, but they find the human stories of Shlomo and Elad so interesting and so strange, going from the dangerous streets of this “capital of the assassins” to Israel and becoming rabbis. It’s so unexpected [and it] appeals to people universally as a very strange story of transformation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.