How a Peruvian farmer transformed to Judaism and began a motion


(RNS) — The decline of Catholicism in Latin America is now widely known. Tens of millions of Latin People have embraced evangelical Christianity or Pentecostalism because the Catholic Church continues to wane in affect, stature and membership.

However one of the vital fascinating turns in that bigger story is simply now coming to mild. 

Graciela Mochkofsky, an Argentinian journalist who’s dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate Faculty of Journalism on the Metropolis College of New York, has written a e-book a couple of Peruvian farmer’s religious quest by means of varied Protestant teams to Judaism.

The journey started in 1944, when Segundo Villanueva discovered a Bible on the backside of a trunk containing his father’s possessions. Like many Catholic Peruvians on the time, he had by no means owned a Bible, a lot much less learn it. 

Graciela Mochkofsky. Courtesy picture

Quickly his zeal for Bible examine attracted followers and ultimately a congregation of fellow Peruvians, principally poor farmers or small retailers, who after years of attempting to know the Scriptures and God’s will for them, determined they have been Jewish. Judaism, nonetheless, doesn’t proselytize, and rabbis are supposed to show away converts, at the very least initially. But this group of Peruvians satisfied the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to transform them and grant them citizenship. Israelis chargeable for their conversion settled Villanueva and his clan within the occupied West Financial institution, the place his descendants nonetheless dwell. (On the time of his loss of life in 2008, Villaneuva glided by the identify Zerubbabel Tzidkiya.) 

“The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land” is a deeply reported e-book that provides a peek into the modifications reshaping religions as extra individuals abandon the faith of their start for one thing else. In Peru alone, a 2014 Pew Analysis examine discovered 66% of Protestants have been born Catholic.

These transformations should not solely altering particular person identities; they might ultimately reshape religions, too. As Mochkofsky stories, in Latin America there are actually dozens of congregations of people who find themselves residing as Jews or within the technique of changing to Judaism, creating what in some locations are parallel Jewish areas to these of conventional Jews by ancestry. The motion is small as compared with these embracing varied Protestant traditions, however singular within the historical past of Judaism.

Faith Information Service spoke with Mochkofsky, a contributing author to The New Yorker and the writer of six books, about how she discovered this outstanding story. The interview has been edited for size and readability.

You got here throughout the story of Segundo Villaneuva on-line. How?

I used to be looking out in Google for one thing that needed to do with Judaism and Latin America and a headline caught my consideration. It mentioned, “Changing Inca Indians in Peru.” It was a letter from Rabbi Myron Zuber in upstate New York asking Jews to donate cash to this congregation in Peru. The way in which he narrated the story was stuffed with inaccuracies. However the core of it was true. It was a Peruvian group who have been initially Catholic and went to plenty of bother to change into Jews. The letter had a cellphone quantity and so I grabbed the cellphone and known as. The rabbi had handed away and I spoke to his spouse. She advised me the remainder of the group was already in Israel and she or he gave me the cellphone numbers to succeed in them. Two weeks later I used to be there and that’s the way it began.

Why did you begin the e-book with Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who conquered Peru within the sixteenth century?

I assumed it was actually essential to begin this narrative when the Bible first arrived in Peru and the way it was compelled on the individuals and was a instrument of oppression for the individuals who lived in that area. Pizarro was in Cajamarca, the identical place the place Segundo was born 400 years later. I’m at all times searching for the narrative arc. 4 centuries after Pizarro, individuals began abandoning Catholicism and have been free to decide on one other faith. We’ve seen for the reason that Nineteen Sixties the shift within the non secular composition of Latin America, shifting from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism. Now there are rising Jewish communities in Latin America.

Segundo rebelled towards Catholicism, however his was a private quest, proper?

His conversion course of begins when he reads the Bible for the primary time within the late Nineteen Forties. He’s a pioneer of a phenomenon that’s coming. When he determined to depart the Catholic Church, greater than 90% of Peru was Catholic. It wasn’t till the Fifties that it started to alter. It was a private determination. He was not attempting to create a phenomenon.

Graciela Mochkofsky’s “The Prophet of the Andes.” Courtesy image

“The Prophet of the Andes” by Graciela Mochkofsky. Courtesy picture

He first tries to hitch the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is comparatively small within the U.S. Did it have an enormous footprint in South America?

At one level when Protestant church buildings started to develop within the area, it had a really robust presence. I don’t assume that’s the case anymore. You see far more Pentecostal and evangelical teams. The non secular transformation of the area and the impression it has on the political element is basically fascinating. You see international locations now in Latin America the place Catholics are a minority — Guatemala and Brazil. When Segundo was searching for a church inside Christianity, Seventh-day Adventists had a extremely large presence.

It should have been actually exhausting for him to desert Jesus and the New Testomony.

It was a transition. When he began learning the Bible he discovered that the Outdated Testomony and New Testomony had putting discrepancies. However when he discovered Judaism he didn’t assume he wanted to desert Christ. It wasn’t till he began studying concerning the historical past and beliefs of Judaism and he began speaking to rabbis and different Jews who had the persistence and the generosity to show him and speak to him, that he realized he wanted to desert the thought of the Christ because the messiah and eliminate the New Testomony. He made a really dramatic gesture. He and his group circumcised their Bibles. The lads (in his group) had already been circumcised. They understood that was a part of their new id as Jews. However circumcising the Bible was even more durable. They buried the New Testomony within the floor like they did their foreskins.

The method of changing to Judaism and getting the non secular institution in Peru and Israel to comply with convert them was extremely troublesome. I discovered myself questioning, why didn’t they offer up?

There are nuances there. There have been many within the Peruvian Jewish institution and in Israel who tried to cease them. However there have been exceptions — individuals who appreciated them and noticed them for what they have been. The bulk rejected them as a result of they have been mestizos from the provinces. Their relationship with rabbis and the Zionist motion in Israel had plenty of nuance, too. Some individuals thought they actually deserved their acceptance and wanted to belong to the Jewish individuals. Others noticed them as a part of a demographic instrument within the wrestle to occupy the land. Segundo and his brother ended up being settlers (within the West Financial institution), and there are 500 of them now, not counting their youngsters and grandchildren. Most are very grateful and really glad and so they see their journey as a hit story.

Did Segundo formally change into a Karaite, a member of a small Jewish non secular motion that acknowledges solely the written Torah as having non secular authority in Jewish non secular regulation?

He didn’t. Segundo by no means stopped looking out. For many of his group Judaism was the tip of the story. That wasn’t the tip of the story for Segundo and I actually needed to give attention to his internal search. He finally ends up rejecting rabbinical Judaism. He’s nonetheless studying the Bible and he nonetheless has questions. He sees issues Jews try this go towards what he understands from his personal studying of the Bible. So he does what he at all times did in Peru. He appears for different individuals who have totally different interpretations. The Karaites are interesting to him. However he by no means joins. He doesn’t wish to be a part of a congregation the place he doesn’t have the liberty to proceed to interpret by himself. Ultimately, he’s alone and remoted. 

Inform me about how this led so many different South American communities to transform to Judaism.

Many individuals in Latin America have by no means heard of Segundo. However the truth that he managed to get to Israel along with his group put South America on the Israeli radar. In that sense, what he did was vital to spark this new phenomena. There are greater than 60 communities in at the very least 14 international locations in Latin America which have gone by means of an identical conversion path. They discovered Judaism or transformed or began main Jewish lives within the hope of being transformed. The conversion and the immigration course of for converts has change into much more difficult and restricted. So many communities in Latin America are ready. There’s this parallel Judaism rising in these cities, in some instances outnumbering the normal Jewish group. Are they going to develop a brand new Jewish world in Latin America not related to Jewish historical past? We don’t know.


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