TORONTO — When Rabbi Elyse Goldstein made her first trip to Guatemala in 2009, she and her travelling companions were hesitant about spending Shabbat with Casa Hillel, a small liberal Jewish community they found on the Internet.
“We were all intrigued by this fledgling Jewish organization, but frankly, we were a little nervous,” recalled the rabbi. “We had heard through the grapevine that this congregation wasn’t Jewish and perhaps even messianic. Nothing was further from the truth. They were very sincere and struggling to become Reform Jews.”
Fast forward four years to February 2013, and their struggle ended when Rabbi Goldstein and two other rabbis officiated at the formal conversion of the Casa Hillel congregants.
“Nothing could emotionally prepare me for this transformative weekend,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
She will be giving a slide-show presentation on this unique community at 7:30 p.m. on March 17, at the Wolfond Centre in Toronto. This event is co-sponsored by City Shul, the new Reform congregation founded by Rabbi Goldstein, and the diversity committee of Congregation Darchei Noam.
Rabbi Goldstein was accompanied on the conversion mission by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, executive director of Be’ chol Lashon, a California-based organization that promotes Jewish diversity worldwide, and Rabbi Claudio Kogan, a Spanish-speaking rabbi and mohel from Argentina who is now based in Texas.
Rabbi Goldstein said that a private donor financed their trip. They made up the three-member beit din that oversaw the conversion of 19 people – 12 men and seven women.
She pointed out that these congregants did not get any special treatment. “They took a written exam, the same one everyone takes when they convert.”
The congregation has formally adopted the name Adat Israel: Asociación Judía Reformista de Guatemala. “Our application to the World Union for Progressive Judaism was accepted, giving us recognition as Guatemala’s official Reform congregation,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
And she will continue to be the congregational rabbi. It’s a volunteer position she took on shortly after her first encounter with the community back in 2009.
“I had never before met a group like this one… They were deeply spiritual people from evangelical or Catholic backgrounds who were searching for a religious life that was not Christian. They decided Judaism made the most sense to them, because they already knew the Bible,” she said.
“My life has been deeply touched by them, by their willingness to learn, by their deep passion for Judaism… They have an incredible sweetness.”
Since 2009, Rabbi Goldstein has visited the community eight times for prayer and study, but she calls herself a “long-distance rabbi,” because much of her teaching has been done on Skype. She also arranged for the group to study on Skype with a Spanish-speaking rabbi.
By the end of 2012, many of the congregants were ready for their conversion and a February date was set for what the rabbi described as an intensive weekend of ceremonial events.
“Following the written exam, the congregants learned to chant Torah,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “Three of them did it for the first time ever at the Shabbat morning service.”
The group studied together until Havdalah and later, each person went before the beit din to be questioned “on their sincerity and their knowledge.” She stressed that the beit din did not pass everyone. “Some people were not ready. Those that didn’t pass are willing to wait another year.”
The following morning, Rabbi Kogan performed the hatafat dam brit on the 12 male congregants, a procedure that was strictly ceremonial, because the men had already had hospital circumcisions.
Afterward, the members went to the mikvah. Rabbi Goldstein said that the congregation did not have ready access to a community mikvah, so everyone drove to a nearby natural mountain thermal pool.
“There was 100 per cent natural running mountain water. It’s where baptisms are often performed,” she said. “We found two private baptism pools that looked exactly like a mikvah with stairs going down.
“There was one for the men and one for the women. We did everything that was [halachically] necessary.”
That same evening the whole community went back to the shul, where three couples were married under a chupah.
The highlight of the weekend was the pre-mikvah service, says Rabbi Goldstein. “That morning, the congregants stood as all Jews stood at Sinai and received the Torah. With a sefer Torah dressed in Guatemalan fabric in front of the room, and the three rabbis as witness, they sang Shema Yisrael…
“They sang Ozi v’ zimrat Yah with full hearts and tears streaming down their eyes. All I can say is, the Jewish People are blessed with groups like these. They speak the language of Divine calling. It’s a language I understand fluently.”
For more information about the slide show, go to wwwcityshul.com.