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Profile: Peruvian Indians Converted to Judaism and Moved to Jewish Settlements in West Bank

Morning Edition: September 17, 2002

Israel - Peruvian Jews



BOB EDWARDS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Bob Edwards.

Two Jewish settlements in the West Bank have received dozens of new residents, more than 80 Peruvian Indians. These families have been living as Jews in Peru for nearly 15 years, but the decision to officially convert them and move them to the West Bank has been controversial in Israel. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports from the settlement of Karmei Tzur on the West Bank.

Mr. MORDECHAI PEREZ: (Hebrew spoken)

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

Before Mordechai Perez(ph) sits down to eat his lunch of ceviche, a traditional Peruvian dish of marinated fish, he says a blessing in Hebrew. Mordechai's lunch may be traditional, but his lifestyle and the journey that brought him to the small settlement in the Judaian hills is anything but. Until two months ago, Mordechai, his wife Laia(ph) and their four children lived in Trujillo, about 800 kilometers north of the Peruvian capital, Lima. All the families in the village were originally Christian, but 15 years ago the village preacher decided that Judaism was the true spiritual path, and the entire community began living as Orthodox Jews. They began eating only kosher food imported from Lima, and kept the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mordechai says he finds spirituality in being Jewish.

Mr. PEREZ: (Through Translator) I like our Judaism, that we have rules for everything. And if we follow these rules, the life is ...(unintelligible). We feel we have everything we need. We have a long life. We don't need anything else.

GRADSTEIN: In May, three Orthodox rabbis from Israel traveled to Peru and converted 84 people; among them, the Perez family. The conversion involved a declaration of faith, immersion in a ritual bath and a symbolic circumcision for the men, all of whom were already circumcised. All of the couples then remarried according to Jewish law. Mordechai says he was thrilled when he was finally converted.

Mr. PEREZ: (Through Translator) We felt very emotional when the rabbis came. We have been writing letters to them to come, please help us, because we wanted to be Jews. So when they came, we felt very, very emotional then. Then we ...(unintelligible), and life as Jew was very easy here because we have kosher food and everything we need to be a Jew.

GRADSTEIN: In Peru, Mordechai, a building contractor, lived in a four-bedroom house. Today he lives in a tiny, two-bedroom, white trailer on the edge of the West Bank settlement of Karmei Tzur. In the corner of the main room is a large Israeli flag; on the refrigerator, a calendar of what moment the Sabbath begins each weeks. Mordechai wears a large, white skullcap and long strings, or ritual fringes dangle beneath his shirt. His wife, Laia, wears a modest dress with sleeves past her elbows, and, in conformity with Orthodox Jewish law, her hair is covered with a scarf.

Mordechai's group is the third to emigrate to Israel from Peru, and all of them went to live in Jewish settlements. Rabbi David Mamo, who arranged the conversions in Peru, says one of the conditions was that the new Jews come to live in Israel.

Rabbi DAVID MAMO: (Foreign language spoken)

GRADSTEIN: `The commandment to live in the land of Israel is equal to all of the other commandments combined,' he said, `but where in Israel is unimportant. It could be Tel Aviv, Haifa or Hebron.'

Critics in Israel charge the rabbis rush through the conversions in Peru to boost the Jewish settler population. Didi Ramez, a longtime activist with the Peace Now movement, says tens of thousands of Russian immigrants to Israel find it almost impossible to convert to Judaism, while a small group of Peruvian Indians, willing to live in the West Bank, is converted almost overnight.

Mr. DIDI RAMEZ (Peace Now): This is a symptom of the total collapse of the settler movement. They're desperately looking for ways of bringing people in, and the fact that they had to go to the Andes to find people to come live in the settlements is a sign that they've really reached a dead end.

GRADSTEIN: But Rabbi Mamo insists it has nothing to do with politics. `The problem with the Russian immigrants,' he says, `is that few of them want to live an Orthodox lifestyle.' He also insists there was no political reason for sending the immigrants to the West Bank. He says, `The rabbis insisted on an Orthodox community since living among secular Israelis could present too many spiritual challenges.' He says he turned to Orthodox communities all over Israel and the West Bank, but only in the two settlements of Alon Shvut and Karmei Tzur were they willing to invest the time and money to welcome the Peruvians.

Sara Weinreb(ph), the Peruvians' absorption coordinator, says the settlers welcomed the Peruvians the way they would welcome any new immigrant who wanted to make aliyah, the Hebrew term for `moving to Israel.'

Ms. SARA WEINREB (Peruvians' Absorption Coordinator): Any person that wants to come on aliyah, we've gone around the world and will continue doing this. For me, this is modern Zionism.

GRADSTEIN: She says that a month after the Peruvians arrived, Palestinian gunmen infiltrated Karmei Tzur and murdered a young Israeli couple. She says settler leaders offered to find the Peruvians alternative housing inside Israel, but they refused. Mordechai says he feels at home in the settlement and intends to stay. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Karmei Tzur on the West Bank.

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