Judaism Caribbean Style
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

Judaism Caribbean Style

In this week's 'Closing Thoughts' Rabbi Ruth recounts her visit to a unique Jewish congregation in Colombia.

On any given week in Atlanta, there are converts who come before rabbis and answer this question. But this was not Atlanta and no ordinary community.

We were in Barranquilla, Colombia, a port city on the Caribbean coast, and this congregation Nehranana, unlike most, is made up almost exclusively of those who have chosen Judaism. While there is a historic Jewish congregation in Barranquilla, with a rabbi and a nice building, Nehranana is modest and without regular rabbinic leadership. Its members come from all walks of life and they are drawn by the power of Jewish observance and community.

I first visited the community three years ago when our family was on vacation in Colombia. My friend Rabbi Juan Mejia, a Colombian who lives in the U.S., had visited them and had many members taking his online Spanish language Jewish classes. So we planned a night in Barranquilla. We were blown away by the passion for Judaism we encountered.

Returning to Barranquilla with Rabbi Mejia just before Thanksgiving, I was surprised to see so many familiar faces among those who came to the beit din. Without regular rabbinic leadership or access to Jewish resources, many had been waiting years to make their membership in the Jewish people official.

As they answered our questions we heard again and again about journeys that started with religious Christianity that eventually did not sit right. Some passed through Messianic churches, but that too was not the fit they were looking for. For most, finding Nehranana felt like coming home.

For many of them, long before they found the community, they found each other and the joy of Shabbat. Even before they fully understood the meaning of mitzvot, they understood the power of coming together, lighting candles, and sharing a meal.

One woman took the Hebrew name Ruth because her mother-in-law, a mother to ten, had chosen to come and live with her and like her biblical namesake there was true love in the connection the women shared. A man chose the name Joseph because in his life he has been a seer of justice and suffered for speaking the truth.

To a one, they affirmed the principles of Jewish life and their connection to the Jewish people.

Before I left Atlanta, I had shared a request for Judaic items that they might be able to use. Congregation B’nei Torah, in the process of closing down their gift shop, donated 20 new tallitot and several individuals shared family heirlooms. As the members of Nehranana unpacked these items, there were whoops of joy and not a few tears. Not only did these items fill a practical need but to this isolated congregation, it was a sign of connection with Am Yisrael.

After the beit din, we went to the beach and 19 people immersed in the living waters and emerged as Jews. That evening, we welcomed Shabbat with singing and dancing and a fried food course after the dessert, because that is the Colombian way.

When Shabbat was over, we gathered for one final celebration. There were three married couples among those who came to the beit din, and each of them had to be remarried in a Jewish ceremony. In true Nehranana style, everyone was invited to watch six people stand under the huppah exchange rings and smash glasses. Then we danced the hora and salsa, ate well, and listened to a Mariachi band until the wee hours of the night

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