Trujillo, Cajamarca, and Lima, Peru

Inca Jews

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.


Luis Aguilar and his family first studied Jewish texts in this cramped room of their Trujillo home. Luis, an engineer, became interested in Judaism after the Six Day War in 1967, when he read Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State. "We had never met a rabbi or a Jew," Luis recalled, "but we became very emotional reading this book." Once the Aguilars were exposed to Jewish practice, they waited for a decade to convert so, in Luis’ words, they "could go to Israel and live as Jews." During their decade in limbo, Luis’ family suffered severe economic hardship because of the family’s steadfast Jewish observance. As he explained, "Aside from the fact that there is little work in Peru, when an employee puts conditions on the employer, he is thrown to the street." In Luis’ case, his "conditions" were that refused to work on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays. Finally, in November 2001, Luis Aguilar and his family were formally converted to Judaism. They fulfilled their dream of making Aliyah in May 2002. Today, Luis and his family do not have to choose between religious observance and gainful employment.

Luis Aguilar and his family first studied Jewish texts in this cramped room of their Trujillo home. Luis, an engineer, became interested in Judaism after the Six Day War in 1967, when he read Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State. "We had never met a rabbi or a Jew," Luis recalled, "but we became very emotional reading this book." Once the Aguilars were exposed to Jewish practice, they waited for a decade to convert so, in Luis’ words, they "could go to Israel and live as Jews." During their decade in limbo, Luis’ family suffered severe economic hardship because of the family’s steadfast Jewish observance. As he explained, "Aside from the fact that there is little work in Peru, when an employee puts conditions on the employer, he is thrown to the street." In Luis’ case, his "conditions" were that refused to work on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays. Finally, in November 2001, Luis Aguilar and his family were formally converted to Judaism. They fulfilled their dream of making Aliyah in May 2002. Today, Luis and his family do not have to choose between religious observance and gainful employment.

Julio Raza, who goes by his adopted Hebrew name, Yishai, allocated a small cement courtyard in the center of his home to the Inca Jews for use as a synagogue. Yishai’s home was located in a neighborhood of Trujillo, Peru called Jerusalén (the Spanish spelling of Jerusalem), in a section of town called La Esperanza ("The Hope"). Thus, the makeshift synagogue is in "Jerusalem of the hope" ­ or better stated, Yishai said, "a hope of Jerusalem." "In the more than 36 years since I first became interested in Judaism, I never lost the hope, or as we say in Hebrew, ‘Ha’Tikvah,’ that someday I might reach Israel." He continued, "Israel is G-d’s beloved child. G-d only wants Israel to make teshuva, returning to the mitzvoth (commandments). G-d is always awaiting this moment." A great moment arrived for Yishai Raza and his family in November 2001, when they were formally converted to Judaism. They made Aliyah in May 2002.

Julio Raza, who goes by his adopted Hebrew name, Yishai, allocated a small cement courtyard in the center of his home to the Inca Jews for use as a synagogue. Yishai’s home was located in a neighborhood of Trujillo, Peru called Jerusalén (the Spanish spelling of Jerusalem), in a section of town called La Esperanza ("The Hope"). Thus, the makeshift synagogue is in "Jerusalem of the hope" ­ or better stated, Yishai said, "a hope of Jerusalem." "In the more than 36 years since I first became interested in Judaism, I never lost the hope, or as we say in Hebrew, ‘Ha’Tikvah,’ that someday I might reach Israel." He continued, "Israel is G-d’s beloved child. G-d only wants Israel to make teshuva, returning to the mitzvoth (commandments). G-d is always awaiting this moment." A great moment arrived for Yishai Raza and his family in November 2001, when they were formally converted to Judaism. They made Aliyah in May 2002.

 
Nine year-old Meir Perez, wearing tsitsit, bicycles down the alley behind his home in Trujillo, Peru. Meir’s parents, community president Nilo Perez and Yona Perez, have practiced Judaism since before Meir’s birth. Judaism is the only religion young Meir has ever known.  In the fall of 2001, with the help of Scattered Among the Nations leaders, a panel of visiting Orthodox rabbis formally converted the Perez family to Judaism. In 2002, the family immigrated to Israel in a group of 84 Inca Jews. Approximately 180 Inca Jews remain in Peru, awaiting the same opportunity.

Nine year-old Meir Perez, wearing tsitsit, bicycles down the alley behind his home in Trujillo, Peru. Meir’s parents, community president Nilo Perez and Yona Perez, have practiced Judaism since before Meir’s birth. Judaism is the only religion young Meir has ever known. 

In the fall of 2001, with the help of Scattered Among the Nations leaders, a panel of visiting Orthodox rabbis formally converted the Perez family to Judaism. In 2002, the family immigrated to Israel in a group of 84 Inca Jews. Approximately 180 Inca Jews remain in Peru, awaiting the same opportunity.

Agustin Araujo is President of the community of Inca Jews in Cajamarca, nearly 200 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation into the Andes from Peru’s northern coast. Because the isolated Cajamarca community had difficulty accessing any established Jewish entity, its members were forced to improvise. Every year during the High Holidays, Agustin blows the shofar he made by hand. Though one restaurant-owning family in the community donated funds to build a synagogue, the Inca Jews still must use a miniature Torah sent by relatives who emigrated to Israel over a decade ago.

Agustin Araujo is President of the community of Inca Jews in Cajamarca, nearly 200 miles and 8,000 feet of elevation into the Andes from Peru’s northern coast. Because the isolated Cajamarca community had difficulty accessing any established Jewish entity, its members were forced to improvise. Every year during the High Holidays, Agustin blows the shofar he made by hand. Though one restaurant-owning family in the community donated funds to build a synagogue, the Inca Jews still must use a miniature Torah sent by relatives who emigrated to Israel over a decade ago.

Jose Urquiza prays in Hebrew at home in Milagros, a particularly impoverished section of Trujillo, Peru, while his family watches. The Urquizas are among the last remaining practitioners of Judaism in Milagros, the former neighborhood of Segundo Villanueva, whose charismatic leadership began the Peruvians’ movement toward Judaism. Jose Urquiza, who taught himself to read Hebrew using an Aleph-Bet chart, has practiced Judaism for more than ten years with his family. Yet, they were passed over for conversion by the Beit Din which visited Trujillo in November 2001. Regarding the Urquizas present difficulties, Jose says, "We try to study the Torah and the Shulkhan Arukh (code of daily Jewish observance) day and night," referring to his careworn, photocopied versions of the texts. "The problem is, we need someone to teach us, because we cannot understand our responsibilities very well on our own."

Jose Urquiza prays in Hebrew at home in Milagros, a particularly impoverished section of Trujillo, Peru, while his family watches. The Urquizas are among the last remaining practitioners of Judaism in Milagros, the former neighborhood of Segundo Villanueva, whose charismatic leadership began the Peruvians’ movement toward Judaism. Jose Urquiza, who taught himself to read Hebrew using an Aleph-Bet chart, has practiced Judaism for more than ten years with his family. Yet, they were passed over for conversion by the Beit Din which visited Trujillo in November 2001. Regarding the Urquizas present difficulties, Jose says, "We try to study the Torah and the Shulkhan Arukh (code of daily Jewish observance) day and night," referring to his careworn, photocopied versions of the texts. "The problem is, we need someone to teach us, because we cannot understand our responsibilities very well on our own."