Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn photo courtesy of BritBraja Jewish Outreach.

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. Photo courtesy of BritBraja Jewish Outreach


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

RIO DE JANEIRO (RNS) 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 BritBraja.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.

Ronald Crusius, who lives in Juiz de Fora in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, prepares for his conversion in 2014. Photo courtesy of Ronald Crusius

Ronald Crusius, who lives in Juiz de Fora in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, prepares for his conversion in 2014. Photo courtesy of Ronald Crusius


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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 BritBraja 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.”

YS/MG END COELHO

26 Comments

  1. I wonder if this article had been about a clergyman of the Christian faith, that the particular denomination of the faith would have been omitted. Indeed, Catholic to Evangelical Protestantism conversion is a major story in Latin America. It follows, I assume, that a story about converting ‘to’ Christianity, without specifying the denomination would have been considered incomplete and insufficiently shallow.

    Similarly, at a time when mainstream Orthodoxy, including the legally recognized rabbinate in Israel, does not recognize conversions officiated by clergy of the Conservative and Reform denominations, an article ignoring this aspect in the story is a disservice to your readers.

    • Not at all.

      Its just assuming things which are a given for the subject. Anything involving interfaith conversion to Judaism means such conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox sects as a matter of course.

      Since these are people with Sephardic Jewish ancestry, there is even a question whether the typical sect labels apply in this situation here.

  2. Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg

    Such conversions constitute a disservice to the local Latin American communities. The people seeking to convert to Judaism should go to their local rabbis and not long-distance rabbis who fly in and out and then leave these ostensibly converts to Judaism to manage on their own in their new faith. And if the case should be that the local rabbis don’t want to accept these prospective converts, they must have their reasons. It is the pinnacle of huzpah of a rabbi to fly in for a few days to a community and, through what he is doing, saying that he knows better than the local rabbis and communities. How would rabbi Kuquierkorn feel if a rabbi from Brazil were to land for a few days in Kansas City and preside over the conversion of one of his congregants without making him aware of what he is about to do?
    This is written by a rabbi who was born and served as a rabbi in Latin America.

    • I´m not agree with Isidoro, many people search help from the jewish comunity and rabies in their location, but in many cases the answer is negative, for this reason is necesary people like the rabbi Cukierkorn, for the , for the other hand, in kansas are not necesary rabbies from oyher places, because in Kansas all the rebbies makes convertion, not like in Latin America, where the many jewish people have a ethnocentric, racist and xenophobic behavior.

      • I do not agree at all with your comments. I am myself a student of rabbi Cukierkorn and I do not live in Kansas City, but in Mexico City. As many of rabbi’s Cukierkorn pupils I have always felt directed and guided by him through the web, through telephone, thorugh skype… We take advantage of technology and he has always there whenever we have nedded him. He is not only our spiritual guide, but also our friend and teacher. Torah study has never been such a challenge for a rabbi before, since we latin americans students were not familiar with many aspects of Judaism and rabbi Cukierkorn has been able to teach us and guide us through Torah with a remarkable knowledge and a loving patience. He knows the Latin american culture better than many other rabbis and he has managed to explain Torah on the light of our own cultural background and reality. It is a Mitzva to take Torah wherever it is needed and we need it and long for it and rabbi has brought it to us. I am one of his students, and I am proud of him because he has always been honest about wheter we are ready to convert or not. He has told us about the long and hard way of Torah and he has never converted anyone who is not suitable of ready to be a good Jew. Waiting for your reply, Teresa Padrón

    • Rabbi Aizenberg embodies all that is wrong with the Latin American Jewish community. His assertion that” And if the case should be that the local rabbis don’t want to accept these prospective converts, they must have their reasons” obfuscates the elitism and xenophobic attitude he himself represents. It is evident that Rabbi Cukierkorn is helping those who are denied access by the local rabbis.
      Evidently he chooses to ignore the article when he says that “long-distance rabbis who fly in and out and then leave these ostensibly converts to Judaism to manage on their own in their new faith”. the article clearly shows how rabbi Cukierkorn is using modern technology to create something new and positive rather than the same old thing that rabbi Aizenberg so well represents

    • I see that this obvious attack on Rabbi Cukierkorn’s work by rabbi Aizenberg lacks the respect that he claims. I am sure that if rabbi Aizenberg made 100 conversions in Kansas, rabbi Cukierkorn would be delighted to welcome them into his synagogue. I ask myself until when people ( mainly the leaders of the Jewish people – Organizations presidents and rabbis) will continue to try to live an appearance of holiness instead of really doing what the Eternal tells us to do in the Torah: “You shalt not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex 23:9)
      Rabbis like Aizenberg should repent and turn in truth to God.
      Rabbi Cukierkorn realizes a very nice job, he really cares about his students, teaches them to live an ethical and moral life guided by Social Justice. If rabbis like Aizenberg , instead of worrying about criticizing rabbi Cukierkorn’s work, helped those who wish to join the Jewish people, then Rabbi Cukierkorn would not have to leave his own congregation in Kansas to help the many that seek him when they find no other open door.

    • Clearly Izzie is very jealous of rabbi Cukierkorn’s accomplishments. Why otherwise he would make so many assumptions and even say things that negate the article in order to asset “his supremacy”. As a Rabbi who served in LA he must be well aware of the problem, which he certainly embodies.
      Rather than trying to shoot down someone else’s work, rabbi Aizenberg should try to help create solutions.

    • WRONG. It is the anti-conversion attitudes of the Orthodox rabbinates in South America that are doing a disservice to Latin American communities. You tell these South Americans to go to local rabbis, but local rabbis refuse to do any conversions. What this means is that the local rabbis and establishments in the Jewish communities there are racists. When local rabbis don’t do their jobs, then someone else is going to step in to fill the void, and Cukierkorn is one of these.

  3. I am sorry Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg feels this way and I wish him well. It is my mission in life to train, teach, and be a spiritual adviser to people in Latin America who have not found others to help them in their quest to join the Jewish community.

    • Who is to say who is a Jew? What right does anybody have to decide who belongs to the Jewish people? I know many Jews that have no interest in the Jewish religion, Israel or the Jewish people. There are millions of people world wide that comes from families that had their Jewish ancestors forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish and the Portuguese inquisition. And some people have the gull to say that these people, because of some near-sighted Rabbis in Latin America wouldn’t help these people come back to Jewish people, that Rabbi Cukierkorn have no right to convert them? I would understand Jews criticizing the Rabbi if the Rabbi was some kind of messianic christian converting gulible Jews to the Christian religion. As a Jew by choice myself I feel very lucky that I live in the USA, as the oportunity for conversion into the Jewish faith are easier and more accepted by other Jews than in many other coutries. There was an article not too long ago about Spain recognizing certain names as Jewish and giving them a right to Spanish citizenship. The descendants of the Sephardic community, who were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula back in 1492, will now be able to acquire Spanish citizenship automatically, without having to reside in Spain. I don’t give a damn if some people in Israel recognizes me as a Jew or not. Maybe “I” won’t recognize them as Jews either.

      • “What right…” ? Have you heard of the 1st amendment? You’re last line explains it all. That the right should belong only to you. Your exception for Jews for Jesus is revealing, in as much as you think that only your standards are legitimate.

        The issue is not who has the right or who doesn’t, this is a discussion about a ‘news’ article, and if this said article faithfully covered the relevant issues raised. I had no idea if this rabbi has his conversions recognized or not. I simply asked why isn’t it part of the article.

        • You don’t make much sense Yoine. What does the first amendment has to do with somebody thinking that they have the right to decide who belongs to the Jewish faith and who’s not welcomed to it? And I find it funny that you think that messianic jews and jews for jesus are part of the Jewish fold. Maybe you should write your own article and tell us if Rabbi Cukierkorn’s conversions are valid or recognized by whoever you think should have the last word.

          • Everybody should have the right, I assume you are probably referring to ‘legitimacy’ of making such judgments.
            Any properly ordained Rabbi can determine who is and who isn’t to be accepted as a Jew under criteria he or she chooses to apply. I never stated my ‘own’ opinion. So I’m puzzled by your asking me about messianic Jews.

            A fair reporter should report what is relevant to the story. I maintain that if it is a fact that particular Jewish denominations do not recognize each other’s conversions, then it is the journalistic duty of a reporter to at least mention the denomination of the Rabbi. Let each reader make up her/his mind on the validity of the conversions mentioned in the article.

            I never challenged here the validity of these conversions, but the omission within the story identifying the denomination of the Rabbi is my beef. I will ignore your belittling comments.

            BTW, Maimonedes (Hilchos Isurei Biah 13:4,5) clearly states that rabbinical courts, in certain cases, can invalidate conversions. Your claim that nobody has a ‘right’ is not supported in Jewish law or historical tradition. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 85:2) itself cites rabbis who held a certain class of converts as being non valid. So you ‘right’ assertion has no basis. But that is beside the point.

  4. Judaism as many human groups are in permanent change; sometime they grow or shrink. The work of Rabbi Cukierkorn and other rabbis that take their professional work seriously have to help the unattended souls that trapped in a non Jew environment try to reach a way to prey and ask for forgiveness of their errors in life accordingly with the soul’s Jewish nature. It’s not a social matter of being born from a Jewish mother, that would be a too simple arrangement for creation to manage the chosen people. It takes courage to help souls to reach a state of conversion in communities where tradition has being misinterpreted and human and social factors make difficult for rabbis to be willing to confront it.
    Our people is under attack right now in Israel and other places by powerful forces more than in any other days of recent times, our strength is not based only in the military, it’s in the permanent help from the Eternal One. The Torah explain very clearly how to treat the newcomers to our house and it’s absurd to remain with our arms crossed as Rabbi Isidoro Aizenberg suggest by leaving the matter of conversion in the hands of prejudiced communities. Our communities in Latin America come from immigration by survival and many of them remain afraid of external people which makes them easy target of prejudice. Many souls of the shoa were reborn to live in bodies of non-jewish homes and for some reason that is unexplained in recent times, they have an urgent need for conversion.
    It’s easy to criticize the one who does by the ones that remain static and enclosed in their communities, but reality is dynamic and need Rabbis like Cukierkorn to confront it and deal with it unafraid.

    • On the subject of souls of the Shoah victims comming back to this life in homes of non-jews, I read somewhere Herman, that many where so traumatized by it, that they didn’t want nothing to do with Judaism and also that there are not enough Jewish mothers available for all those souls that wanted to come back as Jews. But then, once in this earth they long for something, something is missing in their lives. Rabbi Cukierkorn, G-d bless him, is there to help them.

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