A new Jewish space in Guatemala
Recently was the long-awaited inauguration of the Jewish community center of the Sha’ar Shamaim community in Guatemala. As part of the celebrations they were visited by two special guests, friends of Shavei Israel, Rachael Spero and Ariella Lipetz from New York. Rachael writes about her experiences below:
“This past week, my friend Ariella Lipetz and myself had the zechut (merit) of meeting and spending time with a beautiful Jewish community in Guatemala City called Shaar Hashamaim. The country of Guatemala has long been a supporter of Israel with them being the second country to recognize Israel as a state in 1948 and them moving their embassy to Jerusalem in 2018. Moreover, one can spot more than two dozen streets in Guatemala named “Jerusalem Street, the capital of Israel.”
“When my friend Chaya Castillo Riera, who works for Shavei Israel, heard that Ariella and I were traveling through Guatemala, she introduced me to Abraham Shlomo (Fernando) Flores Castañeda, who serves as the president of the community. Abraham graciously invited us to join his community this past Sunday, August 28 to celebrate the Chanukat Habayit (literally meaning dedication of the house) of their community center named Shaar Hashamaim Zionist Jewish Center (Shaar Hashamaim Centro Judio Sionista).
“This center was recently renovated and expanded to accommodate the community’s observance of Shabbat and Mitzvot. The focal point of the center is its beautiful Beit Knesset, which includes an Aron Hakodesh (Ark) replete with many meaningful symbols; one of them being a menorah reminiscent of a menorah found on a religious institution belonging to Bnei Anusim in Antigua, Guatemala and a beautiful Aron Hakodesh (Ark) covering from Israel. The center has rooms for each of the 15 families, rooms for the children’s shabbat classes, modern mikveh, kosher kitchen, rooftop area for a sukkah, and a large eating area for shabbat and yom tov meals. The center allows community members who live as far as 45 km (28 miles) away from their synagogue be able to come and spend shabbat together, as driving is prohibited on Shabbat by Jewish law.
“This past Sunday’s Chanukat Habayit was the community’s first time being in the center since the renovations had begun. We were honored to join the community for a special Rosh Chodesh Elul davening (prayer), a Torah shiur by Rabino Aaron Gulman from Argentina/Israel, and partook in a celebratory delicious breakfast of frijoles (beans), platanos (plantains), juevos (shakshuka styled eggs), and a challah roll as it is considered praiseworthy to wash and say Birkat Hamazon on Rosh Chodesh. Over the Chanukat Habayit, you could feel the excitement of the community in being able to pray in their new center that they had invested so much in.
“The community first began with Fernando’s father-in-law Jaim Yochanan (Juan) Rodas first learning about Judaism in 2003. Around the same time in 2004, Abraham started studying for a master’s degree in Theology with his friend Yochanan (Juan) Alfredo Gutiérrez. The turning point for Abraham was when he learnt about the letter aleph in theology school. Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, represents Hashem the ultimate oneness and it was that letter that started Avraham on his journey of torah and mitzvot. In 2012, Señor Yochanan (Juan) Rodas created a study group with 12 other like-minded people and they gathered to study Judaism in that very same building as the current Shaar Hashamaim Zionist Jewish Center.
“In 2017, a rabbi named Rabbi Shimon Yehoshua came to Guatemala and wanted to assemble a group of people who weren’t Jewish, but were interested in studying Judaism properly from an ordained rabbi. Abraham, whose energy knows no bounds, rose to the task and assembled a group. Abraham and the other group members had different pivotal moments in their journey towards Judaism. Some were drawn to torah and mitzvot observance by reading the Bible, while one member was moved towards Judaism when they heard the powerful sound of the shofar. The Shaar Hashamaim Zionist Jewish Center was established by the union of 15 families in February 2018.
“It is important to note that community center was built 80% by the economic effort of the families that belong to it and 20% by a Jewish donor in the states. The effort and resources the community have put into their center exemplifies their sincerity and determination to practice Judaism in the best way possible. Abraham Flores said, “We have been a community that has grown by our own effort and with very little external help. We have been helped by Hashem who has not left us alone. Hashem has helped us so far and I know He will continue to do so.” In 2019, seven years after the creation of the initial study group and after extensive self study, group study, and studying with rabbinical guidance, Abraham, his wife Sarah (María Gabriela) Rodas Ovalle de Flores, his two sons, and the other 14 families underwent orthodox conversion in front of a Beit Din (Jewish court of law) comprised of rabbis from Argentina, Columbia, Mexico, and Peru.
“Ariella and I were profoundly touched by the community’s warmth and gracious hachnasat orchim (hospitality) throughout our stay. Ariella was particularly impressed by one member who told her that she lives an hour away from the synagogue, but with Guatemala’s infamously congested roads, it could take upwards of three hours to get to the center. In New York, it takes us five minutes to walk to the synagogue and the mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) that these community members have taken upon themselves, really made an impression on us. I stayed overnight at the center and some of the ladies from the community graciously took me around to see the sights of Guatemala City. Despite my limited spanish proficiency, we were able to connect deeply over those two days. We spoke about their connection to Judaism, how they practice Judaism on a daily basis, and about their dreams for their future and the future of their children. One of the ladies in the community is sending one of her daughters to learn in a midrasha in Israel next year while another woman dreams of her son attending Yeshiva in Israel.
“In this month of Elul, let us learn from this wonderful community with regard to their sincerity, hard work, emunah (faith in Hashem), mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) and from their love and dedication to torah and mitzvot. Just as our patriarch and matriarch Avraham and Sarah welcomed people into their home, Abraham and Sarah Flores and their community welcomed us into theirs. With Hashem’s help, this community should continue to grow and actualize their noble and sincere dreams and goals. As it says in Tehillim (Psalms) 84:8, the community should go from strength to strength.
Some of the twelve guest quarters, built for the use of the many community members who live too far to walk.