Guatemala’s Jewish converts struggle

Jewish converts battered by storm seek help from co-religionists abroad.

311_Guatemala Jews (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Guatemala Jews
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A 30-meter-deep sinkhole in the middle of Guatemala City has reopened historic tensions within the local Jewish community.
The Tropical Storm Agatha – the first of the East Pacific hurricane season – struck the already-fragile infrastructure of Guatemala in late May, consuming several buildings and nearly an entire intersection in the nation’s capital.
Although the Jews of Casa Hillel were forced to abandon their place of worship, which sits only two blocks away from the massive gaping hole, they did not leave without their Torah, prayer books and extensive library of Jewish literature.
“All we want to do is to continue leading our lives as Jews,” Jeanette Orantes said, also speaking on behalf of her husband Eliyahu, president of Casa Hillel.
Fulfilling this aspiration has not been easy. When these Christian-born Guatemalans expressed interest in converting to Judaism, they received neither support nor guidance from neighboring Orthodox Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish communities, they said.
Only with the help of Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn of The New Reform Temple of Kansas City – a Brazilian who has helped teach people all over Latin America about Judaism – was Casa Hillel established five years ago.
Since starting Casa Hillel, Cukierkorn has converted roughly 100 congregants to Judaism, he said. Although Cukierkorn is Casa Hillel’s honorary rabbi, he only visits once or twice every year to take care of procedures for which a rabbi is needed, such as a divorce, death or conversion. For the rest of the year the congregation leads itself. Without a rabbi, synagogue, local support-base, money – or even a cemetery – all that the members of Casa Hillel have is their faith and each other.
“These people are unbelievably dedicated to their faith,” Cukierkorn said. “Living a Jewish life, studying Jewish practices, and educating their children on Jewish values. These are the most important things in their lives.”
The congregants of Casa Hillel describe the road to Judaism as a mysterious déjà vu. For Efraim Hernandez, a legal assistant for the local government of Guatemala City, learning about Judaism was like remembering a past life.
“At some point, I started to learn about Judaism and the culture and I thought ‘I don’t know this but I know this,’” he explained. “It’s something that is part of me and I need to learn more of this. And eventually I found that I couldn’t be anything else besides Jewish. It’s a part of me.”
Hernandez, who converted to Judaism three years ago, has high hopes for his congregation and its role in the local Jewish community.
While Hernandez says that there is no official connection between Casa Hillel and the rest of the Jews in Guatemalan City, he hopes that these groups can settle their differences and join together as the Jewish people.
“We are common people with a common life and a common goal to create Jewish community here,” he said. “They came with nothing and forged a community here – this is the same as us. We have the same dream.”
The hospitable attitude of Hernandez is true of the congregation, which has led the community to host a variety of local outreach events, such as lectures on Jewish culture as well as youth outreach programs for residents of Guatemala City.
The congregation also provides wandering Jews, like Rachel Rubin, a place to stay while abroad. Rubin, a senior at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying in Costa Rica for the semester, decided to travel to Guatemala after she received a free flight voucher. Concerned for her safety as a sole traveler, Rubin looked for Jewish communities in Central America online and found Casa Hillel’s Web site.
“I was looking for my Jewish brother to help me out,” Rubin said. “I knew that I always could count on my Jewish family to take me in.”
Since her trip, Rubin has become part of the effort to find a permanent home for Casa Hillel. The evacuation of the temple that bordered the sinkhole marked the closing of the five-year- old congregation’s fourth shul.
While Rubin and Rabbi Cukierkorn have found fundraising for an impoverished Jewish community extremely difficult, Orantes sees America as the congregation’s best chance.
“We have better relations outside Guatemala. We do have friends here but we have no official connections with them here,” Orantes said.
Although Casa Hillel congregants can hope for a stronger and more united Jewish community in Guatemala, reaching out for help from these Jews of different ethnic, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds seems to be ignoring history.
“As long as we have been together, we have been struggling because the mainstream of Judaism [in Guatemala] is Orthodox,” Orantes said. “We are respectful of our relationship but we don’t have any support from anyone there.”