Conversion is offering a way to keep Jewish life alive in the tiny Jewish communities of the Caribbean and Central America, though not without potential hazards.
As more of these communities — some numbering as few as 20 members and located in isolated Jewish outposts such as El Salvador and Bahamas — are able to hire full-time rabbis, the conversion issue is a growing one that impacts the communities’ survival.
With the exception of Orthodox communities in Panama and Costa Rica, all the countries in the region face serious questions on how to maintain Jewish identity as members migrate out of the region or marry non-Jews.
“Obviously with a congregation that’s small, part of the problem is we don’t want to marry close relatives,” Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of Jamaica’s United Congregation of Israelites, told JTA.
Henriques’ “Conservative but liberal” congregation, the only one on the island, boasts some 200 members, most of them born Jews.
Like all 12 members of the Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean, an umbrella grouping of the non-Orthodox communities scattered about Central America and the Caribbean that met here recently, the Jamaican congregation welcomes converted members without hesitation.
Members agree that the influx of new blood is the motor keeping Judaism alive in many communities. In El Salvador, two of the five members of the Conservative community that attend daily Torah readings are converts, community president Ricardo Freund said.
In Costa Rica, the smaller Reform congregation B’nei Israel is made up of many so-called “mixed marriages,” and many members are converts. In Aruba, four new members were admitted to the community last year, all of them converts with no marriage ties to Jews.
Along with providing increased numbers, the converts also add a religious spark in their communities, said Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik of Panama’s Reform Kol Shearith Israel Congregation, and formerly the rabbi in El Salvador.
Conversion “is perhaps the most complicated, most difficult issue our congregations can face,”Kraselnik said at the Costa Rica meeting. “When I was growing up, seeing a mixed couple was a tragedy. In Latin America, being a Jew is not just a religious experience.”
Many of the region’s Jews, even those in the majority Orthodox communities in Panama and Costa Rica, live in what he terms a “Jewish comfort zone” of limited adherence to Jewish principles. Outside of the two countries with a large Orthodox presence, few homes are kosher, and the parking lot of the Orthodox shul in Costa Rica regularly fills up for Sabbath services.
However, converts sometimes adhere to the religious law with greater fervor than members who are born Jewish, perhaps to “prove” their authenticity as Jews.
“For the average Jew, this is a direct threat,” Kraselnik said. “This threat is met with a conscious or subconscious reaction directed at the convert.”
For Costa Rican convert Gonzalo Vega, the process meant a series of hardships even after the conversion process had ended.
“I did some window shopping of religions, even for a while becoming a Hari Krishna, to my mother’s horror,” Vega said.
His spiritual wanderings ended 15 years ago when he converted and entered B’nei Israel, even though the conversion wasn’t recognized by Costa Rica’s Orthodox shul.
“Getting into Jewish life is not necessarily easy,” Vega said. “When I began the conversion process people were very welcoming, but after I converted people said, ‘now practice Judaism.’ “
Vega feels accepted in his Reform congregation, but notes that by converting “in a country like this, one becomes a minority within a minority” — separating himself from the mainstream Catholic religion, yet having his Judaism rejected by most Costa Rican Jews.
One problem Kraselnik faces is that with the growth of evangelical Christianity in the region as the Catholic Church’s influence recedes, many Christians want to turn to Judaism in hopes of “salvation.” That’s one reason why the Orthodox rabbinical orders in Panama and Costa Rica have been so cool to the issue. Rabbis that do perform conversions say they reject more people than they convert.
“I have a responsibility to the community,” Kraselnik said. “We have a large number of people that come looking for conversion with the wrong set of parameters.”
Kraselnik also warns that converted Jews do not have the shared historical experience of their natural-born colleagues. Lacking ties to Jewish history and culture, B’nei Israel offers classes to its converts that touch on Jewish issues as weighty as the Holocaust and as culturally important as how to make chicken soup, said Jody Steiger, who runs the course.
Even in the communities that welcome them, conversions have not always gone over well.
In the Bahamas, conversions led some natural-born members to drift from the Nassau Jewish Congregation, which has just 20 members, said Janeen Issacs, the community’s representative at the Costa Rica meeting and herself a convert. Intermarriage is a given, since there are so few Jews on the islands.
In Aruba, where the island’s 30 Jewish families have been able to hire a full-time rabbi for their Beth Israel Synagogue, the community’s survival appears linked to conversion.
“We welcome anyone who wants to embrace Judaism,” community member Martha Liechtenstein said. “I think if they’re sincere, they can enrich us. It’s not that we go out to recruit; we’re not missionaries.”
Kraselnik said the communities need to determine the proper ratio of converts in their congregations. Too many could “take over” a community and cause it to lose direction, while too few could lead to its eventual demise if community members marry non-Jews and drift from the faith.
Conversion in the region has strong backing globally. Rabbi Uri Regev, president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, as the international Reform movement is known, told delegates at the Costa Rica meeting to “open wide gates” to Jews by choice.
“No one can refer to the future of these Jewish communities without addressing the issue of converting family members,” he told JTA. “I think these communities will have to accommodate family members that are not Jews and facilitate a Jewish upbringing of children, even if the spouse does not convert.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.