Trujillo, Cajamarca, and Lima, Peru
Ever since the "Inca Jews" embraced Judaism, Peru has not felt like home to them. "Because there is no religious freedom here," explained Luis Aguilar from his home in Trujillo, a coastal city in northern Peru, "I cannot practice my profession." Aguilar is a certified engineer with five years of university training, but until recently worked as a part-time teacher, making $80 a month to support his family.
"I had the opportunity to accept two or three positions where the salaries would have allowed me economic tranquility, but I would have been forced to work on Shabbat, which I will not do," he lamented.
Aguilar and his family are typical of the Inca Jews. They began studying and practicing Judaism more than 10 years ago in a cramped room of their home, where most of the family also slept. The poorly-lit, windowless room was unprotected from the elements, with only a flimsy corrugated tin roof.
"I believe it evinces the depth of our great love for the Jewish religion, having endured 10 years like this," Aguilar said with conviction but without bitterness.
Aguilar and his family first learned about Judaism from a fellow Trujillo resident, Segundo Villanueva, who originally studied the Old Testament as a Christian and decided that Jewish customs were more in line with God's commandments.
Villanueva gained many followers of his Jewish teachings in Trujillo, the Andean town of Cajamarca, and Lima, Peru's capital. Eventually, the followers renounced Christianity altogether and began practicing Orthodox Judaism to the best of their abilities. However, without established contacts in the Jewish world, the new Jewish adherents had to improvise. Many made shofarot and tallisim by hand. One of Villanuevas' followers photocopied every page of the Chumash (five books of the Torah plus haftarah) onto parchment and stitched the pages together to make Torah scrolls.
When Villanueva and some of his early congregation formally converted and emigrated to Israel in 1990, they took the improvised Torah with them. It now rests in an Israeli museum.
Nearly 300 Inca Jews reached Israel in 1990 and 1991. Those remaining in Peru expected that a third opportunity would soon arise. However, it took over a decade of steady lobbying for the Chief Rabbi to allow another conversion opportunity.
Finally, in late 2001, an Israeli Beit Din (panel of rabbinical judges), working with Scattered Among the Nations' leaders, traveled to Peru and formally converted 84 of the Inca Jews, including Luis Aguilar and his family. Meanwhile, as many as 180 Inca Jews continued practicing Judaism with great personal hardship and without formal recognition.
Emissaries of Israel's Chief Rabbi announced that they would travel to Peru to convert another group in early 2005. Working with a group in Israel called Shavei Israel, Scattered Among the Nations helped ensure that the Peruvians received proper Jewish training to allow them to succeed in their goal of conversion. Then, Scattered Among the Nations financed again the costs of the conversion process. The vast majority of the remaining Inca Jews in Peru were converted in early 2005, and ready to emigrate to Israel in summer 2005. Without Scattered Among the Nations' support, this success would not have been possible. With the generous support of Scattered Among the Nations and its members, approximately 250 Inca Jews will be living soon Israel, a fully-integrated part of the world Jewish community.
Bryan Schwartz visited the Inca Jews in 2001 and will tell their story with vivid accounts and photographs in his upcoming book with Jay Sand and Sandy Carter, Scattered Among the Nations.
Find out how you can join the Scattered Among the Nations campaign to help the remaining Inca Jews.