When I moved to Cali, Colombia, in 2003, to follow my businessman boyfriend, it was one of the most violent cities in Latin America, besieged by drug cartels. I felt lost, unnerved and out of place. Having grown up in a conservative Jewish family in New York, I sought out Cali’s Jewish community, which welcomed me. Jews are a tiny minority in Colombia; just 4,000 are estimated to live in a country of 50 million, whose religious majority is Catholic, with a growing contingent of evangelical Christians.

More recently, I was surprised to find a growing community in Cali of so-called emergentes — “emerging Jews,” mainly evangelicals who have shed their previous religious doctrines to practice strict Orthodox Judaism. Even though none of them were born Jewish, many had been exposed to Judaism as part of their Christian faith, through the life of Jesus, who was Jewish. They came to see Judaism as the one true religion, many told me. My photography project focused on hundreds who have established their own communities of converts apart from the traditional Jewish communities.

Benjamin Acosta, center right, leads a group in Torah study. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
Benjamin Acosta, center right, leads a group in Torah study. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)

There are seven known emerging synagogues in Cali, whereas the traditional Jewish community has only three. It is hard not to notice the emergentes as they embrace the outward signifiers of Orthodoxy. I first happened upon this several years ago when I spotted a taxi driver with a yarmulke and the traditional tallit (prayer shawl) that Orthodox Jews wear. Over the years I have photographed many emerging Jews who have embraced the religion and its culture — for example, ritual baths and head coverings for women.

These new adherents talk of being unsatisfied with their previous faiths. “I wanted to find the truth,” Rivka Espinosa (formerly Loida Espinosa), who converted from evangelicalism, told me. “I began to study, more and more, and ask myself deep questions: What was my mission in this world? Why was I here? And what did I need to do?” She said her father was the pastor of an evangelical church where she was a member. He also converted.

Children outside Shomar Israel synagogue, a former evangelical church. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
Children outside Shomar Israel synagogue, a former evangelical church. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
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Wearing a head covering, Devorah Guilah Koren puts on makeup in her car with her children. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
Wearing a head covering, Devorah Guilah Koren puts on makeup in her car with her children. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)

“It was a calling of the soul,” Devorah Guilah Koren, who converted from Catholicism with her husband and two children, told me. “More than a religion, (Orthodox Judaism) was a way of thinking and conduct that satisfied all of our needs.”

But despite such strong beliefs, are their conversions valid? Judaism is organizationally decentralized, with different bodies overseeing their own conversions. And who recognizes what conversions is a complicated matter. Various groups and rabbis are carrying out the conversions in Colombia.

Twins Shmuel and Yehuda Fuentas during morning prayers. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
Twins Shmuel and Yehuda Fuentas during morning prayers. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
A marriage ceremony after a group conversion to Judaism; many participants later discovered their conversion would not be recognized for the purpose of immigrating to Israel. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
A marriage ceremony after a group conversion to Judaism; many participants later discovered their conversion would not be recognized for the purpose of immigrating to Israel. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)

The emerging Jews are not associated with any traditional organization in Colombia or in the United States, according to Alfredo Goldschmidt, Colombia’s chief rabbi. But he does counsel and advise them: “The emerging communities consult with me regarding everything,” he told me. “They are a parallel community.”

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Many emerging rabbis have been trained in Israel, I learned, and the emerging communities have formed their own independent organization. “We are Orthodox because (we) follow the same laws like in other Orthodox communities in the world,” explains Meyer Sanchez, assistant to a rabbi in Medellín.

Ilan Castillo Pineda dresses for Shabbat. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)
Ilan Castillo Pineda dresses for Shabbat. (Photo by Heidi Paster Harf)

During my project I gained intimate daily access to those who have adopted this way of life. My work forced me to confront my own views on identity. I began to see Colombia’s emerging Jews as an example of the increasing freedom we all have to choose how we label ourselves — from gender to sexual orientation to religion.

What is identity? Is it something we are born into? Is it something we are free to create? What does it mean to be welcomed and accepted without judgment regardless of genetics, history or background? These are the questions I wanted to raise and the story I wanted to tell through my pictures.

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Heidi Paster Harf is a photographer in Cali, Colombia. Alicia Vergara contributed reporting from Israel.