A Jew by Choice: From El Salvador to Milan to Jerusalem

image: Meir Yehoshua Torres

Meir Yehoshua Torres .

My name is Meir Yehoshua Torres. I am 25 years old. In the last five years I have traveled from my home in Armenia, El Salvador via Milan, Italy to Jerusalem. But my journey has not been about geography; it has been a spiritual quest that has taken me from a small evangelical church in San Salvador to an orthodox Jewish yeshiva (intense Jewish religious school) in Israel, where I have fulfilled my dream and become a member of the Jewish people. This is my story.

I was born into a family with no religious traditions or customs and little interest in the preservation of a family legacy. My maternal grandmother was the exception. Every Saturday she faithfully visited a small evangelical church on the outskirts of the city to pray. As I was close to my grand-mother, I accompanied her each week and spent the day in church.

The congregants there were part of a small religious community of twelve churches. Although they followed mostly Christian practices, they called themselves Israelites and embraced many Jewish rituals and customs. Church leaders wore prayer shawls and everyone sang Hatikvah (Israel's national anthem) and read the Shema (seminal Jewish prayer of faith) every Friday afternoon when welcoming the Sabbath. Saturday was the day of rest and church holidays included Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, complete with a seder (ritual meal at Passover) and a sukkah (temporary dwelling place for eating and sleeping during Sukkot). Church members did not eat pork, or any other unclean animal mentioned in the Bible, and accepted the Bible as the word of G-d and Jews as G-d's Chosen People. That was my first contact with Judaism.

image: Synagogue in Armenia, El Salvador (Photos by Meir Torres)

Synagogue in Armenia, El Salvador
(Photos by Meir Torres)

One day, a young Panamanian Jew* arrived at the headquarters of our Church in San Salvador. He had come to El Salvador to complete his university studies. At first no one noticed him, and it took us a while before we realized he was Jewish. He said he was intrigued by our religious service and wanted to understand why a group of Christians, who had no contact with Jewish people, observed many Jewish religious practices.

Initially, he did not speak about his Jewish identity, but many of the younger members of the church begged him to teach us about Judaism. And so began a series of clandestine meetings. Every Saturday he joined us in church and outside of church we learned about Judaism and the G-d of Israel. In time he became an important figure in our community.

As our interest in Judaism grew, so did our conflicts with the elders of the community. Eventually, the younger members of the church, and those seeking a more direct relationship to G-d, chose to embrace Judaism and dropped all Christian practices and messianic beliefs. It was a process that took several years. In the end, two Jewish congregations emerged out of the original 12 churches. One was in Armenia and one was in San Salvador.

It was from this man that I learned Torah (Hebrew Bible) and Halacha (Jewish law). It was this man who encouraged my study of Hebrew so I could read the Torah and one day pray from the Siddur. But our relationship was time limited. When he completed his university studies, he returned home and I was on my own. After he left, I continued studying until I mastered Hebrew reading, although I still had no understanding of what I read. And each week I tried to study the Torah portion of the week and learn laws and their implementation.

Those among us who embraced Judaism looked for support from the Jewish community of El Salvador, from Jewish religious organizations and from rabbis. We found none. I don't think anyone took us seriously. Even without support, we continued practicing and learning. We all agreed that our goal was to convert to Judaism and become part of Am Israel (nation of Israel). Once we made this decision we decided that all men should be circumcised, because it was commanded in the Torah.

How would we do it? Almost no one had the money to pay for circumcision in a hospital. One of our members from San Salvador who had recently finished his medical studies agreed to perform the circumcisions for men of both communities. And so each week, in an improvised operating room in the home of one of our members from Armenia, the doctor performed several circumcisions. I went first so I could serve as the doctor's assistant for the others. School was starting up again, and we had to complete all the circumcisions before the semester began, so in the end, I performed some of the circumcisions myself. When I think about it now, I thank G-d no one was permanently damaged.


image: Vittorio Emanuel Gallery, location of Beth Shlomo Synagogue, Milan (Photos by Meir Torres)

Vittorio Emanuel Gallery, location of
Beth Shlomo Synagogue, Milan
(Photos by Meir Torres)

In 2006, at the age of 20. I decided to leave Armenia and spend the year with our congregation in San Salvador. At that time, I was having many personal difficulties. While in San Salvador, I was fortunate to befriend a young man through the Internet who lived in Milan, Italy. With the help of my family and his encouragement, I decided to leave my studies at the university and spend some time working in Milan. I had no particular goals. But once I was settled into my new life there, I decided to reach out to the local Jewish community. Again with the help of the Internet, I located a synagogue close to where I lived and asked them to allow me to pray among them on Shabbat. I explained that I was not a Jew but I had studied Judaism in my country and wanted to continue on this path. The congregation's spiritual leader Rabbi Shmuel Rodal agreed.

Never before had I felt so out of place while being happy at the same time. This was my feeling every time I set foot inside the synagogue. I spoke no Italian; I was a stranger and an outsider. And the synagogue, Beth Shlomo, was the first synagogue I had ever been in. And yet, I knew it was right. I attended Shabbat services every week. I read somewhere that Chachamim (wise men) say you can talk to Hashem (G-d) as you would speak with a friend or a parent, so in Italy, G-d became my best friend and companion.

One Shabbat, I was fortunate to meet a man who spoke a little Spanish and he introduced me to Rabbi Shlomo Bekhar of the Beth HaLevi Synagogue. Both men became my close friends and recognized my sincerity in wanting to be a part of the Jewish people.

I decided to move near Rabbi's Bekhar's synagogue. My life was beginning to fall into place. I had found a place to pray every day, a Rabbi who was willing to teach me and a good friend who supported me in my quest.

To support myself and pay for my rent and food, I worked several jobs but still it was insufficient. Friends helped, but I understood I had to be on my own. Rabbi Shlomo found me work at a factory owned by a member of the local Jewish community so I could improve my financial situation.


image: September, 2009.   Meir at the Kotel (wall) the week of his arrival in Israel.

September, 2009. Meir at the Kotel (wall)
the week of his arrival in Israel
(Photos by Meir Torres)

One day Rabbi Shlomo called me into his office. He explained to me that in Milan the conversion process takes many years. He asked if I wanted to go to Israel to study at a yeshiva and do my conversion there. It was like a dream. Rabbi Shlomo contacted the Machon Meir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and they accepted me. By the time I left Milan, I had been there for one year and three months. I had seen and experienced so many things. And here I was about to embark on a new adventure. Frankly, I was frightened. What if they didn't let me enter Israel? It was a risk, but I could not pass up this opportunity.

On September 4, 2008, after saying Arrivederci (goodbye) to all my friends in Milan, I left for Israel. I was 22 years old. I remember that during the flight, I could not remove my face from the window. I thought of the many good people who had helped me on my journey. I looked at the stars and thanked G-d for all His bounties and for taking care of me until that moment. I even thought that if I were denied entrance, it would be enough just to step on the soil of Israel.

The plane landed at Ben Gurion International Airport. As I anticipated, Passport Control took me out of line and questioned me about my passport and my plans in Israel. I had bought an extra plane ticket to Germany so they would not think I was gong to stay in the country illegally. They allowed me to enter, but gave me only three weeks to stay in the country, not the usual three months.

On Friday, September 5, I arrived at the entrance to Machon Meir Yeshiva located in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem I had two small suitcases, a few euros in my pocket and fears and hopes in my heart....


image: Machon Meir Yeshivah, Jerusalem (Photos by Meir Torres)

Machon Meir Yeshivah, Jerusalem
(Photos by Meir Torres)

So began a new phase in my life, a new goal to reach. With some angst, I waited for my acceptance by the Rabanut (rabbinic authorities), which fortunately arrived in a few weeks allowing me to remain in Israel. Studying at the Yeshiva was an enriching experience both spiritually and personally. And it was a happy period of my life. I was preparing for conversion. I was learning about the culture and people of Israel. I was studying Torah. I made many friends in the Yeshiva. They became part of my family and I of theirs. We have grown together and have known the feeling of brotherhood that exists among the Jewish people.


A year and two months after having started my studies at the Yeshiva, I stood before a Beth Din (court) of three Dayanim (judges) of the Rabanut of Jerusalem to testify how much I've learned about Halacha and Jewish tradition and practice, and declared my desire to become part of the Jewish people. On November 19, 2009 I received the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of our Holy Torah, the Halacha, and the merit and duty that comes with being part of the Jewish people.

After that emotional day only two things remained for me to do: circumcision (the first was incorrect) and the Mikvah (immersion). Once completed, I was ready to close the door on one cycle of life and begin a new one as a Jew. I have found my place in the world, among my people, and I cannot want for more.


* I have chosen not to identify this man by name to avoid compromising him in an way.