They are called “crypto-Jews” or “lost Jews,” and they have emerged in remote places as scattered as India, Brazil, the American Southwest and here in Colombia.
They were raised as Christians but believe they have discovered hidden Jewish roots, and are returning to Judaism. Many say their ancestors were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain more than 500 years ago around the time of the Inquisition.
They say they fled for their safety and ultimately wound up in lands like the rugged north of Colombia, a place usually associated with fervent Catholicism.
At the small, white-washed synagogue in Bello, a working-class town next to Medellin, dozens of men and women chant prayers in Hebrew.
This could be Jerusalem. The men wear skullcaps and prayer shawls; the women cover their heads and wear dresses to their knees.
Until a few years ago, they were evangelical Christians. But they’ve converted, becoming Orthodox Jews in this region of high mountains and picturesque towns.
Tracing Their Ancestry To Spain
Hundreds of years ago, on the Iberian Peninsula, Jews converted to Christianity to cloak their real identities in an attempt to escape persecution.
They were known as Marranos, or Anusim, and some eventually made their way to Colombia, a country not known for its Jewish culture. Today, only about 7,000 Jews live here, spread across six cities.
“These people, the Anusim, would inevitably flee to those locations,” says Michael Freund, who directs Shavei Israel, a group in Jerusalem that helps hidden Jewish communities. “They were usually among the first to do so, in an effort to get as far away from the Inquisition as possible.”
Here in Colombia, the converted Jews founded towns and gave them biblical names, like Jerico and Belen. And some of the given names they handed down point to a Jewish past — like Moises and Ruben, Lia and Rebecca.
With the years, they assimilated and their historical consciousness subsided — though that was not the case for everyone, says Freund.
“There are still people there who cling to the remnants of that memory and cling to what is left of that identity, and now want to make it their own,” he says.
Formerly A Christian Evangelical
Ezra Rodriguez is one of those who sought to connect with his past. Though initially a Christian evangelical, he’d long wondered about Jewish ancestors.
“My grandparents had unusual customs even though they called themselves Catholic,” Rodriguez says.
They refused to eat pork, for instance. His grandfather would also wear a hat at all times, even in church.
And in the countryside where they were from, there were other signs of Judaism — like the ponchos the farmers wore, with their untied four corners. They’re nearly indistinguishable from the prayer shawls worn by devout Jewish men.
There were also old homes that contained mikvahs — baths used by Jews for ritual cleansings.
These days in Bello, it’s not hard to decipher the Jewish influence — the new Orthodox Jewish influence. Men in skullcaps stroll the streets. There’s an afternoon Hebrew preschool, and a kosher bakery.
The bakery is run by Shlomo Cano, who used to be Rene Cano when he was a Christian. But he had visited Israel, and had played saxophone in a band that performed Jewish songs for Medellin’s traditional Jewish community.
And so little by little, he’d started to feel the pull of Judaism. He explains it as a spark, which led him to a new religion that made him feel comfortable. These days, he and his family pray daily; on a recent afternoon, his wife, Galit, leads the chants.
They are working hard to raise their small children, Baruj and Gabriela, as observant Jews. Cano says it all feels right to him.
“We’ve discovered our roots,” he says, “and we refuse to disappear.”