The history of Jews in Colombia will be spotlighted as part of the Birmingham International Center’s year-long tribute to the South American nation.
On April 27, an educational dinner, “The Lost Jews of Colombia” will be presented at Temple Emanu-El. Chris Hastings, the James Beard Best Chef of the South award winner, will present Colombian cuisine, and wine is being donated by Undurruga Wines, a Jewish family-owned wine distributor in Colombia.
Rabbi Josh Yuter will visit from New York to present his research on the Lost Jews of Bello, and Rabbi Alfredo Goldschmidt will speak via remote from Bogota about the current state of the Jewish community there.
Estimates of the Jewish community in Colombia range from 2500 to 5000.
Yuter is rabbi of the Stanton Street Shul in New York’s Lower East Side and in 2012 was named by the National Jewish Outreach Program as one of the Top Ten Jewish Influencers through social media. Last year he was named one of Jewrotica’s Top 10 Sexiest Rabbis.
In 2010 he visited Medellin and nearby Bello to explore the Jewish communities there. Medellin is a typical community that dates back roughly 90 years, while Bello’s community is much more recent — and more historic, a result of Catholic “crypto-Jews” rediscovering their roots.
In Bello, a group of about 300 left a 3,000-member Catholic church over a decade ago after a minister traveled to Israel. The Bello community had numerous customs consistent with Jews who had been forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition but kept their Jewish traditions in secret. For generations, they lit candles on Friday nights and had not eaten pork.
A study in the area showed that 14 percent of the men have genetic markers consistent with being descended from the Kohanim. There is also a proliferation of Biblical names for towns and individuals.
A few years ago, many of them formally converted to Judaism and are known as Bnei Anousim.
The Jewish presence in Colombia dates back to the 16th century, as secret Jews who had fled Spain after converting to Christianity. In 1636, a large group of them were discovered and put to death.
The next wave of Jews came in the late 18th century from the Caribbean. In the mid-1800s, Colombia eased the Catholic Church’s role in the government, making it possible to practice Judaism freely.
More Jewish immigrants arrived in the early 20th century, mainly from Mediterranean countries, until the 1930s when Jews fleeing Nazi Germany began arriving. In 1939, Colombia stopped immigration. A few hundred arrived following World War II. During economic and political uncertainty a couple of decades ago, much of the community moved abroad, with many winding up in Miami.
Today, most Colombia Jews are in Bogota, with smaller communities in a few cities. There is an umbrella organization in Bogota that serves all of the country’s Jewish communities.
Goldschmidt is the chief rabbi of Colombia. While the community in general has been slow to recognize the Bnei Anousim and has been skeptical of mass conversions, Goldschmidt has been involved in efforts to bridge the communities. In April 2013 he attended a Shabbaton for Bnei Anousim in Bogota, and was at the opening of the first Bnei Anousim yeshiva last summer.
Spain recently announced that it was offering citizenship to the descendents of Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition in 1492.
The Birmingham International Center chooses a different nation to highlight each year and does a series of educational programs and commerce initiatives.
Tickets are available from the BIC for the 5 p.m. program and dinner. Admission is $60 for individuals and $400 for a table of eight.