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We Never Saw a Jew, But We Loved Them

Aharon Granevich-Granot

A family in the Christian clergy, a devoted parish, and years of searching and doubt culminated in one auspicious moment of encounter with a passing Jew. Since that day twenty-five years ago, Rabbi Yehuda Peretz, senior Arachim lecturer and Judaica scribe, has not only joined the Jewish nation himself, but has brought his entire family and hundreds of Veracruz Bible-study parish members along.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

None of the many ardent followers of the young pastor-in-training, Alfredo Diaz, would have dreamed that within a few years, the devout inheritor of his father's parish would become a Jew -- and take them along with him on his spiritual journey.

From his home in the central Israeli town of Chashmonaim, Rabbi Yehuda Peretz ben Avraham Avinu unravels his tale -- how, as the son of a pastor and an emerging clergyman himself (the Church of La Divina Providencia) in Veracruz, Mexico, he embarked on a spiritual odyssey that brought him to Eretz Yisrael, with his entire family and congregation in tow.

“We had a parish of devout gentiles well versed in the Bible,” begins Reb Yehuda, a senior lecturer for Arachim and Hidabroot. “Actually, my father was originally an aviation mechanic, but he was always looking for spirituality, and that drew him to the clergy. When we were growing up, he always wanted us to worship G-d. We started out as Catholics, but my father moved from denomination to denomination. Adventist, Mormon, variant Protestant sects … we went through them all.

“Finally, he found a sect that sympathized with the Jewish people, and he led this congregation in intense Bible study. Whenever we heard of some tragic circumstances befalling the Jews, we would gather to recite Psalms in Spanish and pray for a peaceful outcome. Thus, during the Six Day War, large groups of our parish went to the Israeli consulate in Mexico. But the consulate didn't know how to relate to these people who looked like Indians and wished to volunteer in Israel.”

As much as the congregation loved Jews, however, they also pitied them for their “blindness” in not accepting the Christian messiah.

"We were missionaries,” says Rabbi Peretz matter-of-factly. “We wanted to convert others to Christianity.”

At nineteen, young Alfredo was a gifted protégé and talented orator and debater, taking over some of his father's speaking duties and leading Bible study groups from the time he was just fourteen. He was also a semi-professional, ambidextrous pitcher for the illustrious Mexican League baseball franchise Tigres del Mexico, and an architecture student on a sports scholarship. But all that was about to change.

During his high school years, Alfredo was part of a Bible study group with other young Christian leaders, but as they probed the texts, they found discrepancies they couldn't resolve. One day a cargo ship from Spain pulled into port at Veracruz, eastern Mexico's major seaport, carrying a shipment of various translations of the Bible in Spanish.

"My friends purchased all the versions, and we locked ourselves away for days, comparing texts,” Reb Yehuda recalls. “Eventually we realized that the original Hebrew text had been changed, translated differently in each edition; we had reached an impasse. We didn't know which was the most accurate reading. We gave up searching for the truth since no version had a substantial foundation. The group was devastated. They felt betrayed. They didn't want to continue.

“This was a crisis for me as well, but my father had instilled in me a strong connection to prayer. So I prayed. I would go to the beach alone with my dog and my guitar and talk to G-d, pleading with Him to show me how to serve Him. This was my version of hisbodedus.”

It wasn't long before Alfredo's prayers were answered.

"Veracruz is Mexico's principal port city, but I had never seen a Jew there. We loved Jews, knew they were what we called 'G-d's ambassadors,' but we had never even met one. One day on the street, I saw a man who captured my attention. There was an aura about him.

"By the way, a Jew cannot understand this, but a non-Jew, who is in darkness, can feel the energy of a Jew. Some force compelled me to approach him. His name was Nissim Yosef and he was a Jew from Aden living in Stamford Hill, in Veracruz on some sort of business. We knew the Jews were holy, so I begged him to come to our house to bless us. When he accepted, I was so happy I called my father and said, 'Listen, I've met a Jew and he has agreed to come to our house. We're on the way home.' By the time we arrived, the entire congregation was waiting for us.

"He was not a rabbi or a great scholar, but, a bit confused at the fuss around him, he began to answer some of our questions on the Bible, giving explanations only found in Chazal and Torah shebe'al peh. This was fascinating for us. We had never heard anything like this. Afterwards we asked him to sing a Jewish song, and he sang 'Tzion halo tishali.' To this day I cry when I hear that song.

"Nissim was a mystery, not married, a perpetual traveler. So he agreed to stay with us for a few days, during which I bombarded him with questions. Some he answered, some he couldn't. But he said, 'Just because I don't have the answers doesn't mean there aren't any. Go to the rabbis in Mexico City -- they will help you. I'll introduce you.'

"I was so happy for this opportunity, and I knew I'd never have it again. I sensed it would be transformative. I could always go back to school, to baseball. I was in the middle of the semester, and our team was flying off to Guatemala for the play-offs. That's where my family thought I'd gone. But suddenly, everything else seemed to shrink, and I left it all to embark on what I sensed was my ultimate spiritual journey.

"There is something else a Jew cannot understand. I was in total darkness. I had no compass, and I needed to get to the truth. A Jew doesn't have to run away to get to the truth because he already has that spark inside him. But a non-Jew is in total darkness and must run from it to something totally different. A Jew cannot understand this because he is never in total darkness.”

It was Shabbos, and Nissim Yosef told Alfredo to put on a yarmulke, enter the synagogue, and not reveal that he wasn't Jewish -- that he was actually a young clergyman.

"I did what he told me, but something stopped me. I could not enter. There were waves of energy emanating from that house of prayer; it was altogether too much for me to bear. I could only stand outside and watch.” 


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