By Judith Fein
It was difficult for my husband Paul and me to gain entrée into the Jewish community in Colombia. I figured it was because of security concerns and was just about to give up when a most surprising chain of events began in Bogotá, the capital and largest city in Colombia.
I finally gained access to Congregation Adat Israel, a synagogue, and was attending a small class of Torah commentary led by the very knowledgeable Rabbi Alfredo Goldschmidt, when a burly bear of a bearded man came in and sat at the table across from me. I nodded at him and he nodded back. When the class was over, the handful of male attendees began to daven in the small adjacent sanctuary, and the man asked me who I was and where I came from. When I told him, he introduced himself as Yehoshua Rosenfeld, the Chabad rabbi, invited me to walk with him to his shul, and, once there, asked me where my next stop in Colombia was. When I told him I was leaving for the colonial town of Villa de Leyva the next morning, he handed me three chalot and said he had a mission for me.
He nodded. “These chalot were prepared for distribution to Jewish inmates at the jail tomorrow for Shabbat. I feel that something good will come of it if I give three of the chalot to you. One challah is for you for Shabbat, one is for your husband—”
“But they are meant for Jews who are incarcerated,” I protested.
The rabbi waved his hand and said they could be replaced. “But there is something important you must do. You must give the third challah to a Jew in Villa de Leyva before Shabbat.”
“Are there Jews in Villa de Leyva?”
“I don’t know. But you must find one. There is no such thing as an accidental meeting of two people. We have a tradition to always look for a way to help another human being. You are going to another city that does not have challot. So you will find a Jew to give it to. Sadly, I have no gefilte fish to send along.”
Hmm, I thought. Mission Impossible. It’s three and a half hours to the town, I know no one there, we’ll arrive late in the afternoon, and I have to schlep along a challah to give to someone who probably doesn’t exist.
The next morning, before leaving, I met with accordion-playing, inspired Rabbi Alfredo Goldschmidt at the Jewish school he runs. Sitting in his office, I discovered that the Orthodox rabbi shares my passion for little-known Jewish communities, descendants of crypto Jews, and what he calls “New Jews,” or converts to Judaism from Catholicism. The latter may or may not have, or be able to prove, Jewish ancestry.
The rabbi invited me to meet the students, and my heart burst as they sang, danced and addressed me in perfect English and Hebrew. The pied piper of a rabbi has created an island of Jewish joy in Bogotá, and it didn’t surprise me that he was connected to Jews all over Colombia and South America. He insisted that I visit a nearby bakery before leaving his city. I agreed. Before leaving, I asked him if I were likely to find any Jews in Villa de Leyva. He said no.
So, off we went. The bakery was small and open to the street, and a glass case displayed plump, golden brown chalot. Two men greeted us. Pinjas, one of them, had peyot tucked under a yarmulka. He addressed us in Hebrew and even threw in a few Yiddish words. When I learned that eight years earlier he was Catholic, I was startled and started asking him questions about how he found his way to Orthodox Judaism. He explained that as a young man he read the holy books of all the major world religions and “decided the Catholic church was a house of cards; it had no foundation. All the morality of the world is represented in Judaism, and the two pillars of the world are love of God and love of humans.” He said he was part of a community of 12 families of New Jews and invited me to visit his house next door.
We climbed up a flight of stairs to find a glatt kosher kitchen with ornamental Judaica, Pinjas’ wonderful Jewish watercolor paintings that he sells all over the world, an open Talmud, and a son named Shlomo who prays in Hebrew and also sports payot. On a chalkboard were words in Yiddish, which Pinjas is learning as he teaches his son and daughter Naomi. He asked if I could stay for Shabbat, as the community gathers at a different house each week, but I reluctantly said I was en route to Villa de Leyva.
“Do you know if I’m likely to find any New Jews or any kind of Jews there?”
He shook his head no.
By the time we had arrived in charming, poetic Villa de Levya, the sun was on its daily downward path. Paul saw a flower shop named Shalom, and I raced inside to see if the owner was Jewish. It turns out, the owner had heard the word “shalom” from Jewish friends of her family, liked it and used it for the name of her shop. A dead end. We went from shop to shop, asking people if they knew of any Jews. Nada.
At our hotel, we met the manager, who said she had worked with many Jews when she lived in Barranquilla, a port city in northern Colombia. She knows how to prepare kosher food and loves Jewish visitors.
“But are there any Jews here?”
She shook her head no.
It was less than an hour until sunset. Someone suggested we ask in the tourism office. We raced there, just as they were closing the doors for the evening.
“You’ll probably think this is nuts,” I said to the young woman who was in charge, “but I need to find a Jewish person within the next hour.”
“Well,” she said, as she stopped closing the doors, “I know one man, but he lives up on the mountain outside of town.”
“How long would it take him to get here?”
“I think at least half an hour.”
“Please, please, can you call him and let me speak to him?”
She punched his number into her cell phone, and after a tense 30 seconds, he answered the phone. She spoke to him rapidly and then passed me the phone. I told him about our mission and begged him to come to meet us before sunset. He agreed. He told the woman exactly where we would meet him.
We ran down the cobblestone streets and reached a small convenience store. We waited, but no one came. It was now about 10 minutes to sunset. The woman called the Jewish man, and it turned out we were waiting at the wrong convenience store. Our guide volunteered to fetch the car and drive us there.
Just as dusk settled, a blond man named Carlos ran toward us. I handed him the challah, and he burst out crying. He said he had been going through a terrible time, and every day he cried or screamed out to God to help him. He felt as though the challah was a sign that his life would turn around and an answer to his prayers from God. “I consider you an angel of God,” he said.
We went into a small coffee shop, and I shared my own challah with Carlos and some of his local friends. One of them was Muslim and said he felt a bit awkward, but I assured him it was not a betrayal of his religion, but, rather, an opportunity for connection across religious lines. We toasted to multiculturalism. As for Carlos’s challah, it was his alone to eat. He closed his eyes, said a prayer over it, and asked us to come up the mountain the next day to his house so he could tell us what kind of troubles he had been having and how he had waited for a sign from God. It was far, but he gave us very specific instructions, and he said he would wait there for us all day.
The next afternoon we changed our plans and drove up the mountain. The road was steep and winding, and we kept asking for directions. We repeatedly called Carlos, but no one answered. We figured the connection wasn’t good or he was having cell phone problems.
We finally arrived at his house, which was unmistakable because of the Israeli flag flying outside and the huge Jewish star that adorned the cement parking area. Two young men — one a relative and the other a friend –– greeted us and said Carlos had gone out in the morning to do some business; they were expecting him any time. They also tried reaching him on his cell phone, without success.
We entered the modern, impeccably clean house. There were Jewish symbols in the living room and paintings of angels. Carlos also made candles, and we admired them, but after an hour, Carlos still wasn’t there.
We walked over to another part of the living room and there, on a wooden dining room table, was an open Torah, crystal candle holders and the Challah, untouched. It was covered with a napkin.
Carlos never came. Eventually we left. We never heard from Carlos again. But Rabbi Rosenfeld can rest assured that we fulfilled our mission and delivered a challah to a Jew in Villa de Leyva before sunset. We had photos to prove it. And we could continue with the rest of our trip through Colombia satisfied we had done our job.
IF YOU GO:
We traveled with Adventure-Associates.com throughout Colombia. They have plans for Jewish tours in Bogotá, Medellin and other parts of the country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist and the author of “Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel.” Her Web site with photojournalist Paul Ross is www.GlobalAdventure.us.