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Wed Apr 14, 2021, 09:24 PM

The Emerging Jews of Colombia

Washinton Post

When I moved to Cali, Colombia, in 2003, to follow my businessman boyfriend, it was one of the most violent cities in Latin America, besieged by drug cartels. I felt lost, unnerved and out of place. Having grown up in a conservative Jewish family in New York, I sought out Cali’s Jewish community, which welcomed me. Jews are a tiny minority in Colombia; just 4,000 are estimated to live in a country of 50 million, whose religious majority is Catholic, with a growing contingent of evangelical Christians.

More recently, I was surprised to find a growing community in Cali of so-called emergentes — “emerging Jews,” mainly evangelicals who have shed their previous religious doctrines to practice strict Orthodox Judaism. Even though none of them were born Jewish, many had been exposed to Judaism as part of their Christian faith, through the life of Jesus, who was Jewish. They came to see Judaism as the one true religion, many told me. My photography project focused on hundreds who have established their own communities of converts apart from the traditional Jewish communities.

There are seven known emerging synagogues in Cali, whereas the traditional Jewish community has only three. It is hard not to notice the emergentes as they embrace the outward signifiers of Orthodoxy. I first happened upon this several years ago when I spotted a taxi driver with a yarmulke and the traditional tallit (prayer shawl) that Orthodox Jews wear. Over the years I have photographed many emerging Jews who have embraced the religion and its culture — for example, ritual baths and head coverings for women.

These new adherents talk of being unsatisfied with their previous faiths. “I wanted to find the truth,” Rivka Espinosa (formerly Loida Espinosa), who converted from evangelicalism, told me. “I began to study, more and more, and ask myself deep questions: What was my mission in this world? Why was I here? And what did I need to do?” She said her father was the pastor of an evangelical church where she was a member. He also converted.

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