The people of Bello, Colombia, had long been devout Christians, but about a decade ago, that started to change.
Some whispered about grandparents that didn’t eat pork; others recalled family traditions of lighting candles on Friday night. And then Juan Carlos Villegas, the minister of a local church, went to Israel, and upon his return, decided to convert to Judaism.
“It was like our souls had memory,” said Villegas, who began to explore his family’s history and has since taken on the Hebrew name Elad. “It awakened in us a desire to learn more — who were we? Where were we from? Where are the roots of our families?”
Many of the people in this traditionally Catholic area believe themselves to be descendents of the anusim, who fled the Spanish Inquisition and adopted Christianity, but only outwardly. It’s a claim that has been buttressed recently by science; a 2008 study found that 20 percent of Catholic men on the Iberian Peninsula have Sephardic Jewish ancestry.
Moment explored the genetic legacy of Jewish Catholics like Villegas in its recent Genes and Religion issue
Meanwhile, as the Washington Post wrote in its profile of the Bello community, a rabbi from Miami, Moshe Ohana, converted many of the Catholics there. The men underwent ritual circumcision, kosher baked goods and meat is widely available, and there’s also a Hebrew preschool, which operates every afternoon.