Where Drug Lords Once Reigned, Colombian Jewish Converts Now Pray


Bello, the Medellín, Colombia suburb largely known for drugs and gang violence, is an unlikely destination for Israeli backpackers, foreign rabbis, and Jewish tourists. But thanks to a former pastor named Juan Carlos Villegas, Bello is now home to a burgeoning, passionate community of Orthodox Jewish converts.

As brought to life by the dazzling reporting of Graciela Mochkofsky, Villegas visited Israel in 1998 through a Colombian governmental program that sent troubled youth to the Negev Desert for reform. There, the Bello-born Villegas, who had previously found solace in a Pentecostal church, encountered Messianic Judaism for the first time and had the kind of life-changing experience that rivals that of any Birthright devotee.

Villegas eventually found the sect to be a “meaningless hybrid,” and after being kidnapped by guerillas in 2002, broke from Jesus, embraced Judaism, and brought hundreds of followers with him. Adopting the name Elad, Villegas introduced kashrut, Shabbat, and circumcision to his new community of Jews, and at one point even flew to Miami to secretly tape record synagogue services for tips. Despite initial tension with the established Jewish community of Medellín, the synagogue is now flourishing, and even counts the Great Rabbi of Colombia as one of its biggest supporters.

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