Latin America’s ‘Emerging Jewish’ movement drawing on Catholic, Protestant disaffection

There is a small but growing wave of conversions to Judaism in Latin America, with many of these converts coming from evangelical backgrounds, according to journalist Gabriela Mochkofsky. In an interview on the Jewish magazine Moment’s website, she notes that this movement is distinct from the Latin Americans who discover their hidden Jewish ancestry (known as “converses”) and subsequently convert to Judaism. The newer wave of converts tends to follow a different trajectory from Roman Catholicism to evangelicalism and then to Judaism. Mochkofsky has mapped the “emerging Jewish” movement as including about 60 communities in 14 countries in Latin America, from Mexico to Chile. Only in Argentina and Uruguay are there no such convert communities. She estimates that the movement numbers from 10,000–15,000, with Colombia having as many as 30 communities now. Mochkofsky’s “hypothesis is that once people decided that they could get away with not being Catholic, they decided they didn’t need to be Christian, and they had this freedom to become whatever they wanted—which is very 21st-century. Almost everyone speaks about this search for religious identity and how the search starts when they stop being Catholic. So when some pastor comes or when someone in the family has become an evangelical, that’s when they start looking.”

She adds, “Some of these evangelical churches have an interest in the Old Testament. So they start reading the Old Testament. They have a connection to Israel within the evangelical movement. There is this idea in some Christian movements…that they have to be closer to Israel, or they have to convert to Judaism so the messiah will come.” This community has been through considerable ordeals to become Jews—including adult circumcision and paying thousands and thousands of dollars just to learn—and yet faced skepticism and rejection from their families, local rabbis, and Israel’s Chief Rabbinate itself. Mochkofsky adds, “In most of these 14 countries where you have these converts, you always find a clash with the traditional Jewish communities. It’s really two separate Jewish lives: You have one that is very religious, and then you have a very secular Jewish life. But you also have a big social divide, because these new Jews are also working-class, from impoverished parts of these countries, and you find that a lot of the traditional Jewish life is more well-off, or middle-class. I think part of the suspicion is that these new Jews are social climbers. That’s the prejudice behind it. And I think part of the appeal of the conversion is that you become someone with a new identity that connects with a richer cultural history, but also with an intellectual, cultural background that they didn’t have in their Catholic starting point.”