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The Guatemalans who sought spirituality and converted to Judaism

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Alvaro Orantes, left, and Jeannette Orantes hold the Torah.

There’s an old Jewish joke about a man marooned on a desert island. He makes the best life he can for himself and many years later, his rescuers are surprised to find that he has constructed two beautiful synagogues. “Why do you need two synagogues when you’re all alone on the island,” they ask him. “This is the one I pray in, the other is the one I wouldn’t set foot in,” he replies.

Down in Guatemala City, the capital of the country with the same name, there’s a fairly new shul that the established Jewish community won’t set foot in. It belongs to a small community of about 30 Guatemalans who are recent converts to Judaism. The established community, however, does not recognize them and has no contact with them.

It’s probably because of the way they were first converted, suggested Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, spiritual leader of the City Shul in Toronto. The community became interested in Judaism and, knowing no better, were converted online in a manner that is not recognized by anyone in the Jewish community.

Guatemalan Jewish converts gather for a community event.

Rabbi Goldstein was invited to visit Guatemala eight years ago by a friend who had adopted a baby there and has been providing spiritual guidance to the newly minted community ever since. She helped hook them up with online conversion lessons and arranged for a Reform beit din (rabbinic court) associated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) to travel to the country to convert the community.

Jeannette Orantes is a spokesperson for Adat Israel, Asociacon Judia Reformista de Guatemala. A mother of three, her husband, Alvaro, is the founder of the community.

Orantes will be in Toronto to headline a program titled, “From Tortillas to Torah, the Jews of Guatemala,” which will be held at the City Shul on Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m.

Guatemalan Jewish converts gather for a community event.

Orantes, like others in the community, was born into the Christian faith, but she and her husband did “not follow any religious line. When our kids were born, I started looking for an orientation. We went to the Christian church, but it didn’t fix what we were looking for. It wasn’t a place, a person, it was something spiritual,” she told The CJN via email.

“Judaism is the older religion, and there is something hidden inside, a kind of method to reconstruct the world, and while making the reconstruction, people should change, being better.”

In 1999, when they started studying Judaism, it was not with the intention of converting, but “just to learn for being better persons.… The mainstream in Guatemala is modern Orthodox and they don’t accept people without a Jewish ancestor,” Orantes stated.

Guatemalan Jewish converts gather for a community event.

“We were committed to learn and the Internet helped us in this point.… In 2005, we decided to register the community with the Guatemalan authorities. As our journey was so difficult, we decided to open our doors to anybody with good intentions that wanted to study with us.”

In 2010, they met Rabbi Goldstein, who spent a Shabbat evening with them.

“Since then, Rabbi Goldstein made a link with us and she decided to teach us again to convert, following halachic steps. We follow her instructions and thank God she brought a beit din to finish the process,” Orantes said.

Guatemalan Jewish converts gather for a community event.

The community rents space in a house that is used as their place of worship. WUPJ provided them with a Torah scroll, which Orantes called “our treasure.”

“We celebrate once a month a Kabalat Shabbat and we are together every Saturday morning for Shacharit prayers. We also follow all the Jewish holidays and celebrations,” she said.

“We avoid eating pork, we wash the beef, we do not mix milk and meat during meals in the community.”

Guatemalan Jewish converts gather for a community event.

“Thanks to Rabbi Goldstein and Kulanu (an organization that supports isolated, emerging and returning Jewish communities around the world), we have had every year a volunteer rabbi that celebrates Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with us,” Orantes, 61, added.

Practising Judaism has caused rifts in some families, she acknowledged, but not in her case. Her sisters remain Catholic and she maintains good relations with them. “Coming to Judaism gives you another point of view and tolerance and there is no place for hatreds and outrages,” she told The CJN.

Although her community does not have a relationship with the established Jewish community in Guatemala, Rabbi Goldstein has opened doors to the wider international community “and we have many visits of wonderful people that make us feel included in the Jewish world,” Orantes said.

“It is a privilege being Jewish. We know that there are many Jews that take that quality for granted. We take every Shabbat as a gift, as an opportunity to learn and enjoy that day declared in Bereshit as the end of Creation, even though some of us have to work (on) that day. We are not wealthy people, we all work for (a) living, but we save some money from our salaries to afford the expenses that means to support our community. We need to continue walking in this desert that is our path, but we need to do it together, as one.”