And the Sea Sang: The Birth of a Jewish Community

Rabbi Juan Mejia
October 31, 2012
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According to our tradition the congregation of Israel was born in one moment: at the foot of Mount Sinai, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as others who had joined them in the Exodus from Egypt, became one nation.  Most of us belong to communities that already existed before we came along, some of us have been privileged to be at the moment of birth of a new Jewish community full of promise, but very few of us have been able to be there, at the foot of the Mountain, or as ended up being, by the shores of the sea, to witness how a community and its Jews are born in an instant.

For over three years a group of dedicated men and women from the beautiful city of Santa Marta in the Colombian Caribbean had been preparing for this moment, in which they would affirm their desire to join the Jewish people and to live according to the laws and values of the Jewish tradition.  Many of them had been living Jewish lives and trying to incorporate its teachings for over a decade, raising their children with Jewish names, with Jewish stories and observing rituals and traditions.  Slowly, the found each other and started meeting regularly for Shabbats and holidays.  Powered by each other´s commitment as a kehilah, they decided to start studying with a rabbi and set forth to converting to Judaism. These pictures tell the story of the birth of their community. (All photographs by Peter Svarzbeinwww.mongovision.com)

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Santa Marta, Colombia is one of the oldest cities in South America. It is blessed with beautiful beaches that draw thousands of tourist from all over the globe every year. Its people are well know as happy and garrulous, always singing and exchanging stories. Combining these two qualities that define the region and its inhabitants, the Jews of Santa Marta have decided to call their community: Shirat Hayyam (Song of the Sea).

It was a terrible hot and humid day in Santa Marta.  The rabbis of the Bet Din (two Argentinians and a Colombian) decided to move it to the courtyard of the Synagogue.  Throughout the interviews the mango tree kept raining mangos on the unsuspecting rabbis. Nature is unrestrictedly generous in these latitudes, much like the people of Santa Marta.

It was a terrible hot and humid day in Santa Marta. The rabbis of the Bet Din (two Argentinians and a Colombian) decided to move it to the courtyard of the Synagogue. Throughout the interviews the mango tree kept raining mangos on the unsuspecting rabbis. Nature is unrestrictedly generous in these latitudes, much like the people of Santa Marta.

One by one the members of the community poured their hearts to the Bet Din, sharing in many cases how their thirst for Torah and for Jewish community had led them to move from city to city, and even change countries, often finding the doors of the Jewish community closed.

One by one the members of the community poured their hearts to the Bet Din, sharing in many cases how their thirst for Torah and for Jewish community had led them to move from city to city, and even change countries, often finding the doors of the Jewish community closed.

Hinne ma-tov uma na'im shevet achim gam yachad.

Hinne ma-tov uma na’im shevet achim gam yachad.

In these three years the community has grown from a three families meeting in living rooms and porches, to having their own synagogue with a Sefer Torah.  It is the only synagogue in the city and often they host American, Argentinian and Israeli visitors who come for the beaches but stay for the joyful prayers.

In these three years the community has grown from a three families meeting in living rooms and porches, to having their own synagogue with a Sefer Torah. It is the only synagogue in the city and often they host American, Argentinian and Israeli visitors who come for the beaches but stay for the joyful prayers.

The heat of Santa Marta often requires hosting services with open doors and windows.  Often, unlike the much expected Elijah on Seder night, unexpected Jews come through the door and marvel that there is a synagogue in this city.

The heat of Santa Marta often requires hosting services with open doors and windows. Often, unlike the much expected Elijah on Seder night, unexpected Jews come through the door and marvel that there is a synagogue in this city.

The community's mikvah is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean.  The sea definitely sings.

The community’s mikvah is one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. The sea definitely sings.

The community gathers under a tamarisk to dance and pray as Jews for the first time in their lives.

The community gathers under a tamarisk to dance and pray as Jews for the first time in their lives.

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Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia. After discovering the Jewish roots of his family, he embarked on a spiritual journey that lead him back to the religion and the people of his ancestors. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia and a summa cum laude Master´s Degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in NY. He plans to devote his life to the Torah education of both Jews and descendants of anusim wherever they may be. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oklahoma City, OK. He was recently appointed as the coordinator for the Southwest for the Jewish non-profit organization Bechol Lashon.

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