Jewish-Latinos find a home in Beit El

A sense of family and inspiration at the site of Jacob's biblical dream.

Batel Weisse-Gamzu (center), who moved to Beit El from Peru 16 years ago, with her husband, Yitzhak, and their four children (photo credit: BATEL WEISSE-GAMZU)
Batel Weisse-Gamzu (center), who moved to Beit El from Peru 16 years ago, with her husband, Yitzhak, and their four children
(photo credit: BATEL WEISSE-GAMZU)
The biblical story of Jacob’s ladder, one that has long inspired awe and mystery among Jews, Christians and Muslims alike is being kept alive in the midst of the Samarian hillside at the settlement of Beit El, only a few miles from Ramallah.
“I came here, and felt an even stronger connection, like this was the place. I looked around at everything, and I said, ‘This is what my kids need,’” says Joseph Maldonado, who works for the local council.
Maldonado and his wife, Rachel, are originally from Puerto Rico. They were drawn to Beit El after finding a deeper connection to their Jewish faith, which ultimately pushed them to make aliya a year ago.
“This is the site of the dream of Jacob; we came to this place because of this holy site,” explains Dr. Hagi Ben-Artzi, area tour guide and professor at Bar-Ilan University. “Many people ask us about Beit El. ‘Why did you come? You’re surrounded by Arab villages; why did you come to settle here on this mountain?’ Our answer is Jacob.”
It is said that Jacob stopped here, fell asleep under the desert sky using a stone for a pillow, and wrestled with God in a dream after he saw angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder.
Thousands of years later, a modest, yet peculiar-looking rock formation exists in Beit El, adjacent to a crumbling, centuries-old building with a warning sign that reads “danger of collapse.”
The Maldonados’ children find themselves exploring it anyway, and as they traipse around the broken bricks and thorny bushes, you’ll hear “Hola” instead of “Shalom.” Trade “Gracias” for “Toda,” and no one bats an eye.
“When I got here to Beit El, I was looking at everything and I said, ‘Wow, but this place seems so much like Puerto Rico, how I was raised,” says Maldonado. “The kids outside, not inside their houses playing video games… riding bikes, simple things.”
Jewish-Latinos have recently found a home in this settlement, establishing a fledgling community of 20 families who represent a wide range of Latin American countries. Chileans, Peruvians, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans create the multicultural tapestry that is Beit El, which after being established 40 years ago has grown to a population of nearly 8,000. The story of Jacob’s ladder is what brings them here.
“Our purpose is to make it possible for every Israeli to be able to come and visit this place and pray here,” says Ben Artzi. “It’s really coming to the place where we get our inspiration because this is the place of the dream.
The dream of Jacob is the destination of the Jewish people.”
Batel Weisse-Gamzu, who moved to Beit El 16 years ago with her mother and two brothers, says that she’s always had a strong desire to live in the Jewish nation she considers home.
“It was really difficult to be able to eat kosher food in Peru, it wasn’t easy,” says Weisse-Gamzu. “We always wanted to live in Israel because for us, the Torah, the land and the people are three things that are always united.”
The strong bond between the residents of Beit El and their faith goes beyond a common Diaspora culture. If anything, the idea of a Latino identity is secondary at best to a collective Jewish brotherhood, something Weisse- Gamzu couldn’t find while she lived in her native Peru.
“I think that for those who fulfill the Torah, there is a sense of being brothers and sisters,” she says. “That feeling of being in a family is not only between Spanish-speakers, but it’s in all of us, even if they don’t understand our language.”
The language barrier is a significant challenge, although Weisse-Gamzu says that there isn’t a sense of marginalization or isolation from the greater Beit El community. Each new immigrant is immersed in Hebrew-language classes and exposed to the Israeli way of life early on. No separate clubs or organizations exist for the Jewish-Latino community, says Weisse-Gamzu. Instead, she adds, everyone seeks to integrate themselves into society as Israeli citizens, without much of a focus on their Latino heritage.
This transition has not been smooth, however, and community figures such as Iosef Neira reiterate this point, using language as an example.
Neira made aliya from Chile and worked in Beit El as a security officer.
“There are two communities here – the Hispanics and the Indians – that have not inserted themselves into the rest of the community,” says Neira.
“There are people that come here from Russia, Canada, France, England, South Africa… all of them are part of the same community. They speak Hebrew, pray in Hebrew and their families share in the same way.”
As for the Latinos, though, Neira says there is more of a challenge.
“The Latinos and those that are from India, we have a cultural problem.
It is an effort for us to speak Hebrew, we don’t like studying Hebrew and we have a mentality that encapsulates us within a certain group because we speak the same language… never do we integrate with the rest.”
Motivation isn’t the issue, according to Neira and other families that expressed a desire to commit to learning Hebrew. Ariel and Ayelet Leon, a couple who made aliya three years ago from Mexico City, shared the excitement they had when their children began to speak Hebrew fluently. They find themselves struggling to learn, but not because Spanish is preferred, says Ayelet.
“It’s beautiful and it’s good to know various languages. For example, I wouldn’t like it if my son only spoke Hebrew and Spanish,” she says. “I would like my children to speak whatever languages they wish. They have friends that speak other languages – English, French, Russian. They’ll be goofing off, but with a French accent.”
Before coming to Israel, the Leon family, similar to Weisse-Gamzu and Neira, strove to lead a religious life in the midst of an entirely gentile, and at times dangerous, society. Neira says he feels safer living on the edge of Ramallah than entrusting his safety with the corrupt law-enforcement institutions of Chile.
Because of constraints on religious practice and concerns about security in the “old country,” the future of their children was a strong push factor in these families’ decision to move to Israel – a decision they say would be easy to make again if given the chance