This piece is being published on the yahrzeit of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, may his teachings endure.
It begins like an old Hasidic story. A reluctant maskil (a defender of the rational reform of Judaism, an “enlightener”) is strong-armed into visiting a chasidic rebbe. In Eastern Europe of yore, these meetings seldom ended well. Maskilim rejecting Hasidism as mystical hogwash for the masses, chasidim regarding maskilim as elitist heretics bent on zapping all magic out of Judaism.
In this case, the rebbe was Reb Zalman and the maskil was myself. I was to serve as the translator for a virtual yechidus, an intimate one-on-one meeting, between Reb Zalman and a grateful Latin American student, Dr. Juan Jimenez Bravo. Some years before, the Renewal movement had received Dr. Jimenez’s community and affiliated them as one of their own. This is noteworthy because Dr. Jimenez’s community, Beith Etz Chaim, is not a suburban chavurah of baby boomers but a synagogue high up in the Peruvian Andes whose members are all converts to Judaism.
For the most part the members of Beith Etz Chaim are third- and fourth-generation descendants of Polish and Russian Jews –mostly men- who came to the city of Huanuco in Peru during the “rubber fever,” the boom in the rubber trade high in the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. High in the mountains, these Jews married local people and Judaism became a memory. Four generations later, their descendants are reclaiming their faith.
Far from an anomaly, the experience of Beith Etz Chaim is being replicated in cities and towns across Latin America. Claiming a long-lost Jewish heritage and wanting to reaffirm their identity, or simply seeking Judaism as a way of life and connection, thousands of Latin Americans have converted (or in some cases reverted) to Judaism. Most of them, unable to integrate into established existing communities, have opted to create their own. The Jewish mainstream across the denominations, both locally and internationally, has been slow to open the doors or lend a hand to these “emerging communities.” And yet, ahead of the curve, Reb Zalman had decided over six years ago to affiliate Beith Etz Chaim to the Renewal movement. Hearing that the rebbe was sick, my friend, Dr. Jimenez wanted to thank Reb Zalman personally for opening the doors for them.