Rio de Janeiro — Jacques Cukierkorn is rabbi to around 100 families at Kansas City’s Temple Israel, but every Saturday his congregation swells with dozens of extras who log on to his virtual synagogue from locations thousands of miles away in Latin America.
Brazilian-born Cukierkorn is catering to a growing number of Latinos who are choosing to convert to Judaism as they abandon the region’s dominant Roman Catholicism.
His outreach work involves teaching Jewish culture, laws and rituals to students in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil.
“At any given time, I have as many as 100 online students working towards conversion to Judaism,” Cukierkorn said. “A handful are based in Kansas City, more than half are in Brazil, the rest are spread throughout Latin America.”
Last month, the rabbi flew to Brazil with a suitcase packed with skullcaps, shawls, prayer books and candles to hold his first conversion ceremony for a group of 15 men and women who have been studying and participating in the live Saturday morning Shabbat prayer services on the BritBracha.org website for nearly two years.
It is the only Portuguese- and Spanish-language distance learning resource for newly converted Jews, would-be converts and those who want to understand Jewish customs and practices.
Cukierkorn said the spread of evangelical churches in formerly Catholic Latin America has opened the door to other religious practices, including a rising demand for exploring the Jewish faith.
There are an estimated 107,000 Brazilian Jews, concentrated mainly in Salvador, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre — a tiny sliver of the country’s 200 million people.
Charton Baggio of Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, discovered he had Jewish ancestors. He was converted by Cukierkorn last year in Mexico City.
“Rabbi Cukierkorn is an inspirational leader and I’m proud to have him as my rabbi,” said Baggio. “Even though we don’t see him physically in person every week his influence here in Brazil and other countries in Latin America has been immense and life-changing.”
In the past three years, Cukierkorn has converted 200 Latin American residents to Judaism. But the work is hard, particularly in Brazil, where converts are not always welcomed into the Jewish community.
“It is a very closed society,” Cukierkorn said. “They prefer people to be Jewish by birth. This is why I set up the virtual synagogue so that anyone who genuinely wants to become a Jew can.”
The conversion ceremony last month in Brasilia was an emotional occasion for many of the online students who met in person for the first time.
Each of the 15 candidates appeared before a beit din, or Jewish court presided over by Cukierkorn and two lay people, and answered questions about adherence to Halakhah (Jewish and biblical laws). That was followed by a ritual purification involving full-body immersion into a local spring, since Brasilia does not have a traditional mikvah, or ritual bath.
Converts also dipped quills into ink and helped complete a specially commissioned Torah scroll.
“We all got a chance to complete the last word in the Torah,” he said. “The outline of the letters was drawn, but left for everyone present to fill in with a quill.”
Camilla Baggio, the wife of Charton, was one of the 15 Brazilians to convert.
Reared a Catholic, she stumbled across her Jewish ancestry after realizing her family had always practiced the traditional Jewish customs of lighting candles on Friday night; using separate kitchen cutlery for preparing dairy and meat meals; and shunning pork and shellfish.
“It has been my dream for years to be part of the people of Israel and it’s finally been realized,” she said.
The Baggios may be part of a larger historical antecedent. Many Portuguese Jews fled to South America after the Inquisition, settling largely in northeast Brazil. These Sephardic Jews built the first synagogue in the Americas in the city of Recife in 1636, then under Dutch command. But the Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism once the Portuguese regained control.
For his rabbinical thesis in 1994, Cukierkorn studied the religious background of Brazilians living in remote areas in the northeast and the Amazon, and he discovered that many villagers had Jewish ancestral connections.
Others, such as Ronald Crusius, who lives in Juiz de Fora in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, has no known Jewish ancestry. Since early 2013, he has been studying the Torah, learning Hebrew, immersing himself in Jewish culture and celebrating the Jewish holidays.
“My life has been a quest to find the right religion for me,” said Crusius, who previously flirted with Buddhism and Islam. Having seized on Judaism, he now wants to do a DNA test to see whether his German ancestors had Jewish roots.
“I believe I’ve finally found my spiritual home in the Jewish faith,” he added. “It is a religion that has kept the purity of its traditions over hundreds of years, and this stability and consistency draws me to it.”
Still others have expressed an interest in converting to Judaism through the BritBracha website but can’t afford a tuition fee.
“If they are truly sincere about converting to Judaism, I am often prepared to help them do so,” the rabbi said. “I simply ask people to donate what they can.”
“I have been accused of proselytizing in the past but I do not preach Judaism,” Cukierkorn said. “People seek out the website and I simply provide a service.”