Peruvian Jews given glimmer of hope to make aliyah

PERU — More than 150 native Peruvians received encouraging news last week concerning their hopes of moving to Israel. After more than a decade of devotedly practicing Judaism and waiting for official Israeli recognition, the so-called "Inca Jews" will host three rabbis from the Conversion Department of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, beginning Nov. 18 — if the Peruvians can find financing in time.

They are turning to Americans for funding assistance.

For the Peruvians, the notification from Israel comes not a moment too soon.

"Because there is no religious freedom here," explains Luis Aguilar from his home in Trujillo, a coastal city in northern Peru, "I cannot practice my profession." Aguilar is a certified engineer with five years of university training, but works as a part-time teacher, making $80 a month to support his family.

"I have had the opportunity to accept two or three positions recently where the salaries would have allowed me economic tranquility, but I would have been forced to work on Shabbat, which I will not do," he laments.

Aguilar and his family are typical of the Peruvians now awaiting conversion. They began studying and practicing Judaism more than 10 years ago in a cramped room of their home, where most of the family also sleeps. The poorly-lit, windowless room is unprotected from the elements, with only a flimsy corrugated tin roof.

"I believe it evinces the depth of our great love for the Jewish religion, having endured 10 years like this," Aguilar says with conviction but without bitterness. "Thank God, our waiting may finally be over."

Aguilar and his family first learned about Judaism from a fellow Trujillo resident, Segundo Villanueva, who originally studied the Old Testament as a Christian and decided that Jewish customs were more in line with God's commandments.

Villanueva gained many followers of his Jewish teachings in Trujillo, as well as the cities of Cajamarca and Lima. Eventually, the followers renounced Christianity altogether and began practicing Orthodox Judaism to the best of their abilities.

However, without established contacts in the Jewish world, the new Jewish adherents had to improvise. Many made shofars and tallit by hand. One of Villanuevas' followers photocopied every page of the Chumash (five books of the Torah plus haftarah) onto parchment and stitched the pages together to make a Torah.

When Villanueva and some of his early congregation formally converted and immigrated to Israel in 1990, they took the improvised Torah with them. It now rests in an Israeli museum.

The first two to make aliyah brought nearly 300 of the Peruvians to Israel in 1990 and 1991. Those who for various reasons could not leave the country expected that a third opportunity would soon arise.

That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, political winds have shifted in Israel. Silence met the endless stream of letters sent to Israeli officials by the Inca-descended Jews in Israel and Peru — until the spring of 2000.

Then, last spring, the Chief Rabbinate dispatched an emissary to Peru, Rabbi Yaakov Kraus, to interview the conversion candidates to determine their suitability. His report concluded that most of them were immediately ready. More than 150 people prepared excitedly for their conversion and move to Israel.

But another long pause ensued. The Peruvians in Israel pressed forth with a major lobbying operation to release their friends and family from their purgatory of waiting.

Avraham Alon, president of the Peruvians in Israel, finally got through to Israeli authorities last week.

Rabbi Eliahu Ben Dahan, principal of Israel's Rabbinical Court, wrote to Alon, "We will be ready to send a group as a Beit Din [conversion panel of rabbis] in Peru to interview those who are interested in conversion…

"I accept your word that you will take care of all the expenses of the mission."

In other words, explains Alon, "The rabbis want to help us, but will not fund the effort. With our tears and prayers they have agreed to come…

Alon has issued a plea to American Jews to help finance the effort, as "we cannot do it ourselves," he says.

The conversion will cost a minimum of $27,000, after which time, Israel will sponsor the normal costs of absorption, including transportation, five years' housing subsidy, six months' Hebrew instruction, costs of living, and more.

No American organization is currently devoted to helping the Peruvian aliyah.