March 6, 2003
Visiting Peru’s Would-be Jews
"Practicing Judaism has totally renewed me."
Chan Chan is the world's largest mud city. Lying just outside the town of Trujillo, on Peru's northern coast, Chan Chan's high earthen walls feature pre-Columbian carvings paying tribute to the civilization's many gods.
In 2001, I ventured to Peru, not just to visit the ruins of great ancient cities founded by the Incas and their predecessors, but to meet nearly 200 Inca descendants who have found Judaism in recent decades.
Groups of native Peruvians, who were religious Christians, began practicing Judaism after they came to believe that it was impossible to follow biblical laws without adhering to Jewish ritual.
Prospero Lujan, at 70 an elder statesman among the "Inca Jews," escorted me to Chan Chan one afternoon. I asked him why these Peruvians would take an interest in Judaism, when Peru's own ancient cultures built such splendid monuments.
"Where are they and their gods now?" he replied, referring to their destroyed civilization.
Prospero's past may be Inca, but his future is in Israel. Next month, Prospero will fly to Israel on a chartered plane full of new Peruvian converts making aliyah. Two groups of Inca Jews were converted and made aliyah before 1991. The remaining community in Peru struggled for more than 10 years to gain the attention of Israel's chief rabbinate. The rabbinate initially promised to return soon to Peru to convert more people, but reversed course after several earlier converts "defected" to a more secular lifestyle in Israel.
The Inca Jews finally prevailed in November 2001, when an Orthodox beit din (Jewish court), came to Peru from Israel and converted Prospero Lujan and 83 others. I reminded Prospero that war-torn Israel is no paradise, but he was unfazed, feeling the Promised Land will rejuvenate him.
"I will never be afraid again. When I am 80 in Israel, they will think I am 40," he said. "Spiritually, I feel young. Practicing Judaism has totally renewed me."
The new converts' enthusiasm is matched by the disappointment of approximately 80 Inca Jews the beit din left behind.
Ester Guerra, who immigrated to Israel with the first groups in 1991, recently called me in the middle of the night, having heard that I am a friend to the Peruvian communities. The family of her brother, Lucio Guerra, was one of those wishing to convert with the rabbis last fall. The rabbis passed over Lucio's family.
"Please do something," Ester begged. "I am all alone here in Israel, and it is destroying me. You know my brother Lucio's family, how religious they are."
When I was in Peru, I visited the Guerras in Cajamarca, a town over 8,000 feet high in the Andes, six hours inland from Trujillo. As we spoke, Lucio's wife, Marina, prepared a fish lunch with hot peppers, baked yucca and rice. The Inca Jews generally eat only vegetarian food and scaly fish, because they cannot get kosher meat.
Lucio formerly drove a cargo truck, but was forced to become a garbage truck driver for the municipality to avoid working on Saturdays.
"My old job was better-paying, but we have to look toward spiritual goals before material concerns," he explained. Lucio tries to support his family of six on approximately $175 a month.
The Guerras' children, in navy and white school uniforms, ran in from their morning classes just as lunch was ready. Everyone performed a ritual hand washing and said the Hebrew blessing over rice. As we ate, I talked to Eliel Guerra, 10, about life in Peru's public schools.
"Our teacher makes us pray the Catholic way," he said. "When she called on me to lead the prayers, I looked the other way, and she pulled me to the front and hit me twice on each hand with her tablet."
The Guerras do not know why they were denied conversion last fall by the beit din. Ester thinks it may be because Lucio does not lay tefillin -- which he cannot afford to buy.
Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, a member of the beit din in Israel, said the failure to use tefillin would not itself be a reason for denying a conversion. However, Birnbaum would not say why any particular family or individual was denied conversion last fall.
Rabbi David Mamou, the head of the beit din, said he hopes to organize another group of rabbis to go to Peru about six months after this group of 84 people has been "successfully absorbed" -- though it's not clear exactly how that determination will be made.
"We have opened a door and we hope to continue forward," Birnbaum said. "Another 10 years of inaction will not pass."
The Peruvians want to believe the rabbis, because they cannot bear the thought of waiting another decade.
"Now we are waiting for the opportunity offered publicly by the beit din to return to Peru," said Aquiles Lujan, Prospero Lujan's oldest son, who also was passed over by the beit din in November. Aquiles has become the new president of Trujillo's community.
"We also remain at the mercy of men of good will and kind actions to make possible the return of the rabbis," he continued, stressing the role that world Jewry can play -- both with funding and advocacy -- in helping the remaining Inca Jews convert and move to Israel.
Under Israeli law, no rabbis other than Mamou's group can help the Peruvians realize their dream of immigrating to Israel.
Malka Kogan, an attorney at Israel's Interior Ministry, explained, "The State of Israel's rule is to allow a man to immigrate who converted in a congregation where he lives."
But what if the man is like Lucio Guerra or Aquiles Lujan, without an authorized local congregation willing to help?
"Then the chief rabbi's office must convert him before we can bring him to Israel," Kogan said.
No matter how long that takes. Â
Bryan Schwartz, an Easton, Pa.-based lawyer, is completing his first book, "Scattered Among the Nations: Photographs and Stories of the World's Most Isolated Jewish Communities."