By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
Rabbi Jack Engel of Anshei Emuna Congregation in Delray Beach has always been enamored by Conversos, Jewish people who were persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition and openly practiced Catholicism for hundreds of years.
He said he heard stories of people in those communities in Europe and South America who followed traditions like not mixing meat and dairy, burying the dead immediately and lighting two candles on Friday night, but not because they were Jewish.
“It was just a family custom,” Rabbi Engel said is what many families chalked up the strange traditions to be. “They couldn’t relate to anything Jewish.”
And over the past several decades, many of those families began to return to their Jewish roots. Through his travels, Rabbi Engel said he visited several communities like this in Bogota and Medellin. He said there was a thought to help one of these Jewish communities abroad by sending them a Torah.
That thought came to fruition thanks to members of his congregation, Boca residents Himena and Elie Levy.
Congregation member Himena Levy is from Colombia and she remembered a friend mentioning a Jewish community in Cartagena that was very observant with the little resources they had. The conversation took place about eight years ago, but she remembered it when she wanted to spend her 50th birthday in Cartagena.
She mentioned the idea of the trip to Rabbi Engel and suggested finding out about the community.
So, the congregation got to work reaching out to rabbis in Colombia to see if the community was in need of a Torah. It took time to get a response, but the answer was yes, the community existed and was in need.
The congregation had a Torah to donate, but it needed to be refurbished. The idea was to fundraise throughout the congregation.
But Levy said her husband Elie suggested they cover the expense for the restoration.
In March, the Levy family traveled to the Sephardic Israelite Center in Cartagena with Rabbi Engel and his wife, Miriam, to deliver the Torah.
They were greeted by the congregation with jubilation. The people hugged the Torah and danced around with it.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Levy said. “They are a very warm and generous community. It was emotional.”
Levy came to America on a fellowship as a physician and fell in love with her now husband. She grew up Catholic, but had a feeling if the relationship lasted she would need to convert.
She went back to Colombia when her program ended and the couple had a long distance relationship for more than two years. During that period, she worked to convert to Judaism, a religion she knew nothing about, but would grow to love.
She said it was challenging in a predominately Catholic country to even find a rabbi to help with the process. Eventually, she converted and the couple married.
She said she knows how hard it is for this community to practice Judaism.
“They live their life around the traditions and the country is mainly Catholic,” she said. “It’s very hard for them.”
Rabbi Engel said delivering the Torah was an experience of a lifetime.
“You saw the joy of the people,” he said. “They were dancing in the streets. It was spiritually uplifting to them and more so to us.”
He said the visit and donation of the Torah was an example of just doing a good deed.
“Its one of those things you do and there is no benefit other than you feeling you are doing something good,” he said. “Sometimes doing good is the biggest pleasure that you can have.”