Conversion offers a lifeline for dwindling communities

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

san jose, costa rica | As more of these communities — some with as few as 20 members and located in isolated Jewish outposts such as El Salvador and the 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 small congregation, we don’t want to marry close relatives,” said Ainsley Henriques, honorary secretary of Jamaica’s United Congregation of Israelites.

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 group of non-Orthodox communities scattered throughout Central America and the Caribbean, the Jamaican congregation welcomes converted members without hesitation.

Members agree that the influx of newcomers is the engine keeping Judaism alive in many communities. In El Salvador, two of the five members of the Conservative community who attend daily Torah readings are converts, said community president Ricardo Freund.

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 converts with no marriage ties to Jews.

Along with their greater numbers, the converts 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, 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 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. 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, as the Catholic Church’s influence has receded, evangelical Christianity has moved in. As a result, many Christians want to turn to Judaism in hopes of “salvation.” That’s one reason Orthodox rabbinical orders in Panama and Costa Rica are so cool to the issue.

“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. Because converts lack ties to Jewish history and culture, B’nei Israel offers classes that touch on Jewish issues as weighty as the Holocaust and culturally important as how to make chicken soup, said Jody Steiger, who runs the course.

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. “If they are 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, advises imperiled communities 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 said.