(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 decline in influence, stature and membership.
But one of the most fascinating twists in this larger story has just been revealed.
Graciela Mochkofsky, an Argentinian journalist and dean of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, wrote 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 belongings. Like many Catholic Peruvians at the time, he had never owned a Bible, let alone read.
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 they decided they were Jews. Judaism, however, does not proselytize and rabbis are expected to refuse converts, at least initially. Yet this group of Peruvians convinced the Orthodox rabbinate of Israel to convert them and grant them citizenship. The Israelis responsible for their conversion settled Villanueva and her clan in the occupied West Bank, where her descendants still live. (At the time of his death in 2008, Villaneuva was called Zorobabel Tzidkiya.)
“The Prophet of the Andes: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land” is a deeply narrated book that offers insight into the changes that are reshaping religions as more and more people abandon the religion of their birth for something else. In Peru alone, a 2014 Pew Research study study found 66% of Protestants were born Catholic.
These transformations not only alter individual identities; they can eventually reshape religions too. As Mochkofsky reports, in Latin America there are now dozens of congregations of people living as Jews or converting to Judaism, creating what in some places are Jewish spaces parallel to those traditional Jews by descent. The movement is small in comparison to those embracing various Protestant traditions, but unique in the history of Judaism.
Religion News Service spoke with Mochkofsky, a New Yorker contributing writer and author of six books, about how she found this remarkable story. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You came across the Segundo Villaneuva story online. How?
I was searching Google for something that had to do with Judaism and Latin America and a title caught my eye. It said: “Convert the 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 told the story was full of inaccuracies. But the main thing was true. It was a Peruvian community that was initially Catholic and went to great lengths to become Jewish. The letter had a phone number so I picked up the phone and called. The rabbi had died and I spoke to his wife. She told me that 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 story when the Bible first came to Peru and how it was imposed on the people and was a tool of oppression for the people who lived in that area. Pizarro was in Cajamarca, the same place where Segundo was born 400 years later. I’m still looking for the story arc. Four centuries after Pizarro, people began to abandon Catholicism and were free to choose another religion. We have seen since the 1960s the shift in the religious makeup of Latin America from Catholicism to Evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism. There are now emerging Jewish communities in Latin America.
Segundo rebelled against Catholicism, but that was a personal quest, right?
His conversion process began when he read the Bible for the first time in the late 1940s. He was a pioneer of a coming phenomenon. When he decided to leave the Catholic Church, over 90% of Peru was Catholic. It wasn’t until the 1950s that it began to change. It was a personal decision. He wasn’t trying to create a phenomenon.
He first tries to join the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is relatively small in the United States. Did it have a big footprint in South America?
At one time, when Protestant churches began to grow in the region, their presence was very strong. I no longer think that is the case. You see a lot more Pentecostal and evangelical groups. The religious transformation of the region and the impact it has on the political component is really interesting. Now you see countries 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 very large presence.
It must have been really hard for him to let go of Jesus and the New Testament.
It was a transition. When he began to study the Bible, he discovered that the Old Testament and the New Testament had striking discrepancies. But when he discovered Judaism, he didn’t think he had to give up on Christ. It was not until he began to learn the history and beliefs of Judaism and began to speak to rabbis and other Jews who had the patience and generosity to teach him and talk to him, that he realized he had to give up the idea of 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 this was part of their new identity as Jews. But circumcising the Bible was even more difficult. They buried the New Testament in the ground like they did their foreskins.
The process of converting to Judaism and getting the agreement of the religious establishment in Peru and Israel to convert them was incredibly difficult. I wondered, why didn’t they give up?
There are nuances there. There were many in the Peruvian Jewish establishment and in Israel who were trying 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 mixed-race from the provinces. Their relationship with the rabbis and the Zionist movement in Israel was also very nuanced. Some people thought that they really deserved to be accepted and that they needed to belong to the Jewish people. Others saw them as part of a demographic tool in the struggle to occupy the territory. Segundo and his brother ended up being settlers (in the West Bank), and there are now 500 of them, not counting their children and grandchildren. Most are very grateful and very happy and see their journey as a success.
Did Segundo officially become a Karaite, a member of a small Jewish religious movement that only recognizes the written Torah as having religious authority in Jewish religious law?
He does not have. Segundo never stopped looking. For most of his community, Judaism was the end of the story. This was not the end of the story for Segundo and I really wanted to focus on his inner search. He ends up rejecting rabbinic Judaism. He still reads the Bible and he still has questions. He sees the things that the Jews do against what he understands from his own reading of the Bible. So he’s doing what he’s always done in Peru. He looks for other people who have different interpretations. The Karaites appeal to him. But he never joined. He doesn’t want to be part of a congregation where he doesn’t have the freedom to continue interpreting on his own. In the end, he is alone and isolated.
Tell me how it 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 travel to Israel with his community put South America on Israel’s radar. In this sense, what he did was essential to trigger this new phenomenon. There are over 60 communities in at least 14 Latin American countries that have followed a similar path of conversion. They either found Judaism or converted or began to lead a Jewish life in the hope of being converted. Conversion and the immigration process for converts became much more complicated and restricted. So many communities in Latin America are waiting. There is this parallel Judaism growing in these cities, in some cases outnumbering the traditional Jewish community. Will they develop a new Jewish world in Latin America unrelated to Jewish history? We do not know.