Good evening. I thank Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and the Great Temple community for sharing my personal experience as a new member of the Jewish people.
I begin by thanking the Eternal for allowing me to be part of the Jewish people by the hand of a man of extraordinary wisdom and human quality: Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn. I am a former Catholic priest converted to Judaism. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, in 1954. My family is moderate Catholic. I was the eldest of five sons. My parents, despite the scarce economic resources, always had in mind to provide their children the best possible education.
I did my high school at the American School of Bogota where I had contact with students of several religious creeds, including two Jewish students: Esther Welleman and Ralph Guberek, their families migrated to Colombia during the World War II. The Welleman family came from The Netherlands and the Guberek family came from Poland. I rememeber also an English teacher named Mariana who was a survivor of the Shoah, she used to be an anxious person, probably because of her suffering at the hands of the Nazis. With Hiltler coming to power in 1933 and the war, a significant number of Jews emigrated to Colombia from Germany and Poland mainly. Many of them were professional people who ended updedicating themselves preferentially to trade. They were known as the “Polacos” which means Poles. In a few years they became part of the local business, despite restrictions on Jewish immigration by the Colombian government.
I remember an episode very significative to me. I was still a high school student and I was on Caracas Avenue, one of Bogota’s main streets. Suddenly I warned close to me of the presence of an elderly man who was preparing to cross the busy avenue. I offered him my help and he accepted. We walked together a few blocks, a tour in which he told me he was a Jewish man. I asked him about his family and he told me: “all my family perished in Nazi death camps.” His answer left me in shock, so I told him: “I also want to be Jewish.” He looked into my eyes and told me with deep pain that it was very difficult to be a Jew in the world. After that I visited the synagogue attended by the old man, the synagogue is closed today. I remind pleasantly Rabbi Alfred Goldsmicht’s teachings of Patriarch Joseph and the pharaoh’s dreams. Although I did not understand liturgical language, I felt involved in the celebration. I remember the Yiddish expression Gut shavet. My interest in Judaism started growing.
A question arose in me: Why am I so attracted to Judaism and the Jewish people? Is there any link between me and the Jewish people? I needed to get an answer to my concern. I spent most of my free time to read about the Jews and their rich history, about their ties to Latin America. I understood that there is a strong and profound historical connection between the Jews and Latin America. The Spanish and Portuguese inquisition in the 15th century and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, caused descendants of anusim called marranos to reach Spanish and Portuguese America. The Jews are an important part of Latin America’s roots so were non-Jewish Europeans, American Aboriginal and African people. Over time I came to understand that making Judaism my spiritual place was a call of the Eternal.
College years came. I studied law at the National University of Colombia and for a few years declined my interest in Judaism to devote myself to law and social studies. I became a socially unhappy student who wanted the social order to become fairer for everyone. Colombia is a country with many profound social inequalities. Jewish thinkers were always present in my university education as Karl Marx, Spinoza, Theodor Adorno, Erich From and Sigmond Freud, among others. I have great admiration for Professor Solomon Kalmanovich, a prominent Jewish historian and economist linked to the National University of Colombia.
As a lawyer I served as independent lawyer, and as a public employee at the National University itself, the Ministry of Labour and the Surcolombiana University in Neiva, a city located in southern Colombia three hundred kilometers from Bogota where I lived almost 30 years. I wanted to serve the poorer and needy in society, and I thought a means of doing so would be the priesthood. I decided, after several years of professional practice as a lawyer, to contact the Diocese of Neiva and go to study theology at the National Seminary Christ the Priest in the northwest of the country. It was a significant experience in my life. I had the opportunity to have outstanding professors of theology and meet seminarians from various places in Colombia and other countries such as the United States, Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico. I especially remember Father Elkin Alvarez, my professor of biblical studies trained at the so-called Biblical Institute in Jerusalem. Father Elkin was a jovial and very human man, he has knowledge of the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. Father Alvarez aroused in my great interest in bible studies and the history and religion of the Jewish people, present in the very roots of Christianity.
After my studies in seminary, I returned to the Diocese of Neiva and served in several parishes. Those were difficult years in rural parishes. While I was a parish priest in the village of Santa Maria, located among the central mountains of Colombia, I had to live together with the local inhabitants two attacks by the FARC guerrillas. I was in the middle of the war and came to think that my days were coming to an end. In the parishes where I served, I always counted on the love and support of parishioners. On my return to Neiva I was appointed by the Bishop of the Diocese as parish priest of the cathedral. A deep contradiction invaded my heart. On the one hand my love for parishioners and social work for the poorest and neediest and, on the other hand, the teachings of the Church that I considered contradictory to the teachings of the Bible.
I asked myself fundamental questions, for example: If the Bible teaches that the Eternal is neither man nor son of man, why the Church teaches that Jesus is God? How to reconcile the ban on having other gods and making images with the Catholic theology of images and worship of saints? Contrary to Judaism, the Catholic Church as well as the other Christian churches base their teachings on dogma, a truth of faith that cannot be questioned, only accepted by the faithful. Questioning the divinity of Jesus as I did, placed me in the situation of being excommunicated from Church ipso facto, that is without any process. I was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth had not founded any religion and that he was born Jewish, lived as such and died being Jewish. The ethical behavior of the Christian was the observance of the Ten Commandments. These teachings caused the Bishop to point me as a Judaizer. I presented my questions in a written document to the Bishop without having received any answer from him, this led me to make the decision to give the Bishop the parish to my office and to depart forever from the Catholic Church. By then I had had the opportunity to speak by phone with Rabbi Jacques who invited me to reflect on my situation and offered me his guidance and help. I felt that the Eternal was with me by sending this wonderful human being to guide me. When I spoke to the Bishop about my radical decision, in the bottom of my heart I said to the Eternal: “I go empty but I know that you will put your hands to receive me.” The decision was made. It was not an easy decision, but it was the right way forward. My mother and brothers respected supported my decision, my father had already died.
After leaving the Catholic Church I continued living in the city of Neiva. I was astonished by the fact that when I was on the street as a former priest and a former catholic, people used to express their sorrow for my departure but never reproached my decision. I believe that in this circumstance there was also the action of the Eternal. In the past, a cleric’s decision to abandon the Church to embrace Judaism would surely have provoked perhaps violent reactions or even death. The times, thanks to the Eternal, have changed to give way to freedom of conscience, guaranteed by article 18 of the Political Constitution of Colombia that says: “Freedom of conscience is guaranteed. No one will be disturbed by their convictions or beliefs or compelled to reveal them or forced to act against their conscience.” I must say, in any case, that my relations with catholic are cordial and respectful. I think Pope Francis is a friend of the Jewish people and a leader who fights for immigrant rights and social justice in the world.
August 27, 2012, according to the 9th day of Elul’s month of 5772 of the Hebrew calendar, at the Kehilat Hatikvah congregation in San Cristobal, Venezuela, I entered into the historic covenant between the Eternal and the people of Israel of my own free will.
During my process of conversion to Judaism I have, in addition to the support and direction of Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, the reception and support of the Britbraja community of Mexico. I consider More Israel Rocha, More Eyal and each and every member of the Bribraja community, as my spiritual family in Judaism. Now I feel that my spiritual family has become bigger by coming into contact with the Great Temple community. It makes me really happy!
In 2016 I wrote a book titled AKVOT- HUELLAS, Contribution to the history of the Jewish presence in Colombia, in which from the arrival of Columbus to this day, the presence and contribution of Jews in the formation of Latin American nations is highlighted. AKVOT is a Hebrew word that means footprints. In the book I highlight the fact that in Colombia as in many other Latin American countries, there is a growing interest in Judaism. For many, however, it is not easy to access the teaching of Judaism. It is almost impossible to enter existing traditional Jewish communities. In these circumstances, Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn’s work to allow the return or arrival of new Jews to the people of Israel has a special significance and has led to the transformation of the lives of hundreds of people in Latin America, as has happened in my case.
Let me to quote this teaching of the Talmud on the Jewish linage: “Certainly when it comes to lineage, all the people of Israel are brothers. We are all children of a Father, the rebels (reshaim) and the criminals, the heretics (meshumadim) and the seals (anusim) and the proselytes (guerim) who are attached to Jacob’s house. They’re all isrelites. Even if they left God or denied him or violated his Law, the yoke of the Law is still on his shoulders and will never be removed from them.” (cf. Shaadaya ben Maimon ibn Danana 16th v. Kmedah Genuzah, 15b)
The Jewish people possess an ethnic plurality and a common destiny, I was able to confirm this during my visits to Israel. As Albert Einstein would say: “Jews are certainly a mixed race, exactly like all other groups in our civilization, honest anthropologists agree on this point; contrary claims belong to all political propaganda and must be judged accordingly.” As a member of Britbraja I strive to live the Jewish values from a liberal and inclusive perspective, with respect to other perspectives of living Judaism and respect religious traditions other than Judaism. I believe in the need for interreligious dialogue to help achieve the long-awaited peace of the Mesianic Era announced by the prophet Isaiah: “It will happen in future days that the mount of the House of the Eternal will be seated in the middle of the mountains and rise up in the hills. All nations will converge upon him, and numerous peoples will come…” (cf. Isaiah 2.2).
I thank all of you for the attention you have paid to me. I wish you well-being and peace in your lives and in your homes. Let us work together for the unity of the Jewish people and make the world a better place!
LE SHANÁ HABÁ BIYERUSHALAIM!