JERUSALEM – It's not quite Moses' 40 years in the desert, but for a group of nine struggling Venezuelan converts to Judaism their torturous journey to a better life in the promised land finally brought them to Israel on Thursday.
They immigrated under the Law of Return, which gives Jews the world over the right to settle in Israel.
The journey almost fell apart late last year when, after seven months of correspondence with officials in Israel, they were denied entry over concerns they weren't involved enough with Venezuela's Jewish community and were looking to take advantage of Israel's immigration policies to flee the troubled South American nation.
But that decision was reversed in January. As part of a face-saving deal worked out by liberal Israeli lawmakers and ultra-Orthodox officials, the group marked their conversion — for the second time — with a ritual immersion last Sunday at a synagogue in Colombia before picking up their visas and setting off for Israel.
"May you find your heart's desire, healing and peace with all of your brothers in Israel — those who are traveling with you and those you've yet to meet," Rabbi Juan Mejia said as leaned his forehead against Jackson Marrone's, offering him a blessing for a safe journey. Shouts of "mazel tov" echoed off the sanctuary's high ceiling.
The protracted fight over the "Venezuelan Nine" underscores the fierce debate in a divided Israeli society over who is a Jew and how a religion that doesn't proselytize like Christianity or Islam grapples with an increasing number of converts, especially from Latin America, who have found their way to Judaism outside traditional paths like marrying someone of the faith.
It's also taken its toll on the nine Venezuelans themselves.
For years, Franklin Perez has lived a Jewish life. He wears a skullcap, gave Hebrew names to his children and traveled three hours by road to Caracas to buy kosher meat — when he could find it.
His embrace of Judaism began when he moved to the Venezuelan city of Maracay in 2004 after losing his job as a philosophy professor during a political shakeup at the university where he taught. He fell in with a group of messianic Jews who combine Christianity with Jewish traditions. Perez's curiosity had already been piqued during his childhood by a Jewish great-grandmother in an otherwise Roman Catholic family, and he led the group in study of religious texts.
Over time, a hardcore nucleus was drawn to bedrock Judaism itself. In 2011 they found Mejia, a Spanish-speaking Conservative movement rabbi who lives in Oklahoma but returns a few times a year to his native Colombia. He led them in six hours of study online each week, and after a year later they traveled to study with him for a week in Santa Marta, Colombia. They returned in 2014, and under the supervision of a religious court of three rabbis took a dip in the warm waters of the Caribbean to complete their conversion.
"This is not a new thing, this is not a fad," Mejia said. "These people didn't decide yesterday, 'Oh, Venezuela is going down the drain, let's find someplace to go.' Everything Jewish that they have, they built, which gives you a sense of ownership and pride that is not only commendable but worthy of imitation."
But for some Orthodox rabbis in Israel, the Venezuelans weren't kosher enough.
Leaders of the cloistered Jewish community in Caracas were also doubtful of their motives because they had never had contact with the group, even though the nine had been quietly welcomed by a dying community of Orthodox Jews in the nearby city of Valencia, which needed them for the 10-male quorum required for public worship in a synagogue.
According to an official in Israel familiar with the case, there was evidence suggesting some of the applicants converted to Judaism to take advantage of Israeli social benefits, including health insurance. The official agreed to discuss the case only if not quoted by name because he was not authorized to discuss the converts' personal status.
But after a stormy parliamentary committee hearing in Israel, during which liberal lawmakers sparred with officials from the ultra-Orthodox-run Interior Ministry, immigration officials said the nine could move to Israel if they repeated their conversion and joined an "established religious community" once in Israel.
Perez freely admits that if it weren't for Venezuela's collapse they would have never looked to leave. He is resettling his family in a foreign country with just $350 and seven suitcases of belongings — all that's left after Venezuela's economic slide that brought triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine.
Another member of the group, Nadine Garcia, couldn't find chemotherapy drugs for her cancer treatment. And the home of Perez's in-laws, where his family had been living, was recently broken into by thieves who walked off with cheese and rice from the refrigerator.
The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit organization that works with the Israeli government on immigration, paid for their flights and housing.
"I don't imagine ever going back, not even to visit," said Perez, adding that he will nonetheless miss Venezuela's verdant climate while at the immigrant absorption center in the Negev Desert that will be his family's temporary home while they perfect their Hebrew. "The problem isn't economic. It's social, moral and ethical. For Venezuelans to rebuild their lost values it's going to take at least 50 years."
Members of Venezuela's aging Jewish community have been fleeing to places like Miami and Panama for years. From a peak of 20,000 Jews in Venezuela two decades ago, around 8,000 remain today.
In addition to lamenting the country's economic woes, many Jews complain of facing virulent anti-Semitism since the late President Hugo Chavez broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009. Around 50 gathered recently at a community center in Caracas to learn how they could move to Spain and Portugal under new laws in those countries granting citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century.
Mejia said he thinks the wariness of Israeli authorities over the nine stemmed less from a fear of a mass exodus of starving Venezuelans and more from discomfort with the idea that in the age of the internet and spiritual shopping many people are being drawn to one of the world's oldest living faiths.
"We're not used to this amount of popularity," quipped Mejia, who embarked on his own path to Jewish conversion while studying philosophy in Colombia.
But he said ultimately it is Israel's mission as a Jewish state to provide refuge for Jews in danger — born ones and converts alike.
"I cannot save everyone, but these are my students and I'm very relieved that so many people have come together to do a little bit," Mejia said.
Associated Press writer Daniel Estrin reported this story in Jerusalem and AP writer Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.