(RNS) — The decline of Catholicism in Latin America is now widely recognized. Millions of Latin Americans have embraced evangelical Christianity or Pentecostalism as the Catholic Church continues to wane in influence, stature and membership.
But one of the most fascinating turns in that larger story is just now coming to light.
Graciela Mochkofsky, an Argentinian journalist who is dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, has written a book about a Peruvian farmer’s spiritual quest through various Protestant groups to Judaism.
The journey began in 1944, when Segundo Villanueva found a Bible at the bottom of a trunk containing his father’s possessions. Like many Catholic Peruvians at the time, he had never owned a Bible, much less read it.
Soon his zeal for Bible study attracted followers and eventually a congregation of fellow Peruvians, mostly poor farmers or small merchants, who after years of trying to understand the Scriptures and God’s will for them, decided they were Jewish. Judaism, however, does not proselytize, and rabbis are supposed to turn away converts, at least initially. Yet this group of Peruvians convinced the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel to convert them and grant them citizenship. Israelis responsible for their conversion settled Villanueva and his clan in the occupied West Bank, where his descendants still live. (At the time of his death in 2008, Villaneuva went by the name Zerubbabel Tzidkiya.)
“The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land” is a deeply reported book that offers a peek into the changes reshaping religions as more people abandon the religion of their birth for something else. In Peru alone, a 2014 Pew Research study found 66% of Protestants were born Catholic.
These transformations are not only changing individual identities; they may eventually reshape religions, too. As Mochkofsky reports, in Latin America there are now dozens of congregations of people who are living as Jews or in the process of converting to Judaism, creating what in some places are parallel Jewish spaces to those of traditional Jews by ancestry. The movement is small in comparison with those embracing various Protestant traditions, but singular in the history of Judaism.
Religion News Service spoke with Mochkofsky, a contributing writer to The New Yorker and the author of six books, about how she found this remarkable story. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You came across the story of Segundo Villaneuva online. How?
I was searching in Google for something that had to do with Judaism and Latin America and a headline caught my attention. It said, “Converting Inca Indians in Peru.” It was a letter from Rabbi Myron Zuber in upstate New York asking Jews to donate money to this congregation in Peru. The way he narrated the story was full of inaccuracies. But the core of it was true. It was a Peruvian community who were initially Catholic and went to a lot of trouble to become Jews. The letter had a phone number and so I grabbed the phone and called. The rabbi had passed away and I spoke to his wife. She told me the rest of the community was already in Israel and she gave me the phone numbers to reach them. Two weeks later I was there and that’s how it started.
Why did you start the book with Francisco Pizarro, the Spaniard who conquered Peru in the 16th century?
I thought it was really important to start this narrative when the Bible first arrived in Peru and how it was forced on the people and was a tool of oppression for the people who lived in that region. Pizarro was in Cajamarca, the same place where Segundo was born 400 years later. I am always looking for the narrative arc. Four centuries after Pizarro, people started abandoning Catholicism and were free to choose another religion. We’ve seen since the 1960s the shift in the religious composition of Latin America, moving from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism. Now there are emerging Jewish communities in Latin America.
Segundo rebelled against Catholicism, but his was a personal quest, right?
His conversion process starts when he reads the Bible for the first time in the late 1940s. He’s a pioneer of a phenomenon that’s coming. When he decided to leave the Catholic Church, more than 90% of Peru was Catholic. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it began to change. It was a personal decision. He was not trying to create a phenomenon.
He first tries to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is relatively small in the U.S. Did it have a big footprint in South America?
At one point when Protestant churches began to grow in the region, it had a very strong presence. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. You see much more Pentecostal and evangelical groups. The religious transformation of the region and the impact it has on the political component is really interesting. You see countries now in Latin America where Catholics are a minority — Guatemala and Brazil. When Segundo was looking for a church within Christianity, Seventh-day Adventists had a really big presence.
It must have been really hard for him to abandon Jesus and the New Testament.
It was a transition. When he started studying the Bible he found that the Old Testament and New Testament had striking discrepancies. But when he found Judaism he didn’t think he needed to abandon Christ. It wasn’t until he started learning about the history and beliefs of Judaism and he started talking to rabbis and other Jews who had the patience and the generosity to teach him and talk to him, that he realized he needed to abandon the idea of the Christ as the messiah and get rid of the New Testament. He made a very dramatic gesture. He and his group circumcised their Bibles. The men (in his group) had already been circumcised. They understood that was part of their new identity as Jews. But circumcising the Bible was even harder. They buried the New Testament in the ground like they did their foreskins.
The process of converting to Judaism and getting the religious establishment in Peru and Israel to agree to convert them was incredibly difficult. I found myself wondering, why didn’t they give up?
There are nuances there. There were many in the Peruvian Jewish establishment and in Israel who tried to stop them. But there were exceptions — people who appreciated them and saw them for what they were. The majority rejected them because they were mestizos from the provinces. Their relationship with rabbis and the Zionist movement in Israel had a lot of nuance, too. Some people thought they really deserved their acceptance and needed to belong to the Jewish people. Others saw them as part of a demographic tool in the struggle to occupy the land. Segundo and his brother ended up being settlers (in the West Bank), and there are 500 of them now, not counting their children and grandchildren. Most are very grateful and very happy and they see their journey as a success story.
Did Segundo formally become a Karaite, a member of a small Jewish religious movement that recognizes only the written Torah as having religious authority in Jewish religious law?
He did not. Segundo never stopped searching. For most of his community Judaism was the end of the story. That wasn’t the end of the story for Segundo and I really wanted to focus on his inner search. He ends up rejecting rabbinical Judaism. He’s still reading the Bible and he still has questions. He sees things Jews do that go against what he understands from his own reading of the Bible. So he does what he always did in Peru. He looks for other people who have different interpretations. The Karaites are appealing to him. But he never joins. He doesn’t want to be part of a congregation where he doesn’t have the freedom to continue to interpret by himself. In the end, he’s alone and isolated.
Tell me about how this led so many other South American communities to convert to Judaism.
Many people in Latin America have never heard of Segundo. But the fact that he managed to get to Israel with his community put South America on the Israeli radar. In that sense, what he did was critical to spark this new phenomena. There are more than 60 communities in at least 14 countries in Latin America that have gone through a similar conversion path. They found Judaism or converted or started leading Jewish lives in the hope of being converted. The conversion and the immigration process for converts has become a lot more complicated and restricted. So many communities in Latin America are waiting. There’s this parallel Judaism growing in these cities, in some cases outnumbering the traditional Jewish community. Are they going to develop a new Jewish world in Latin America not connected to Jewish history? We don’t know.