From the Church to the Synagogue
The story of Rabbi Yehuda Peretz, who grew up as a Christian and was about to become a priest, until he got the idea to read the Bible in the original. A journey of devotion
For the first 17 years of his life, Alfredo Diaz lived the typical life of a Christian. He was born in the Mexican port city of Veracruz to a father who served as the pastor of a devout Christian community. Like the rest of his family, he regularly attended the church, studied the Bible and was almost ordained a minister himself. But just before taking that fateful step, he converted to Judaism, immigrated to Israel and became a rabbi.
Alfredo Diaz was born to his father Sixto and his mother Liliana. The family had six sons and four daughters. He studied at the local school, attended church and was active in sports. Until here, his story was routine for every typical Mexican child.
"We belonged to the Union of Christians for Jews," Rabbi Yehuda Peretz begins his story. "For us, the Jews were the most important people in the world, although we were taught that the Jews were struck with blindness regarding the identification of the real Messiah.”
Alfredo's community would regularly read the Bible. "Everyone would bring a Bible to church, and the minister would indicate a particular verse. The first one to find the verse would be asked to quote it in front of everyone. Then each of those present stood up and explained the verse according to his personal feelings and understanding.
“As mentioned, I was very young, but when I explained verses, the Elders of the group raised their eyebrows. Over the time those present claimed that I have a profound view as well as an original approach, and they began to train me to serve in an active position in the church. The fact that I was suitable for the position wasn’t so amazing because the head of the Church was none other than my father." Indeed, around the age of 14, Alfredo started to serve in the Church.
"We studied the New Testament," says Alfredo, "and when we encountered obvious contradictions between it and the Bible - we would guess the answers. Just imagine a group of people sitting with a Bible without any commentaries, quoting a verse and each is asked to interpret the contents however he feels. Is there any chance he will understand anything truthful this way?!"
Alfredo understood that the enlightened church leaders who claimed to "learn" the Bible were actually engaging in idle guesses!
Three years passed. Alfredo tried to get answers to his doubts — but to no avail. At age 17, his father and the church elders come to the conclusion that it was time for the church to confirm the young Alfredo to his clerical position.
"When I was offered the job, I didn’t realize the processes that were beginning inside of me. I only asked for an extension and explained that I didn’t feel ready for the job. I knew that I would not live a lie. If I get the job, I would carry it to perfection, without questioning. At this point, I still didn’t have teachers or rabbis, I was living in darkness and I was wary of taking risky steps."
Meanwhile, Alfredo sent his questions to the Vatican, which was considered the highest religious authority among Catholic Christians. "The answers I received were an insult to human intelligence. They told me that the things I asked don’t have an answer. They just swept everything under the table," he says.
Then the straw that broke the camel's back arrived. In Veracruz, a Spanish ship docked that was loaded with various translations of the Bibles.
"We didn’t know the holy language, and we learned the Bible from a Spanish translation. When we heard that we can get other translations of the Bible, we decided to purchase all types of editions in order to compare between them, and then perhaps we would be able to settle the various contradictions. We received at least ten kinds of books, and when we compared between them, we discovered that each translator explained things as he saw fit."
In other words, Alfredo was amazed to find that the system of guessing however you want was rife among the translators.
A year passed. Alfredo celebrated his 18th birthday. In this year, he began two important projects in his life: studies and sports. He studied architecture at the Cetmar College in Bora Cruz, and played professional baseball for a year in Mexico’s national baseball team, which represented Mexico in the United States as part of the National League. His life at that time was split into three parts: in the morning he went to college, in the afternoon he engaged in sports and in the evening he immersed himself in the study of religions.
"Not for a moment did I doubt G-d’s leadership of His world, but something about my Christian faith didn’t make sense to me. Throughout this time, I was arguing with Muslims and the followers of other religions. To argue with Jews was something that was out of the question. Even though we esteemed the Jews, the Jews were blind. The last thing I dreamed of doing was to go in that direction."
During that time when the young Alfredo was in turmoil, he used to go for walks on the beach with his guitar to relax. "I would sit in the dark and ask G-d to show me the way. One day an idea came into my head: study the Bible in its original language, without any translation! From that moment I was a changed man."
Immediately after he made the decision, Alfredo met, for the first time, a Jew.
"A Jew born in Aden, Yemen who lived in Stamford Hill, England, came to our city. Actually, he looked like any person because he didn’t wear a kippa. Until then I wasn’t acquainted with any Jews, and I thought that the Jews looked different. A Jew for me was a member of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. For me, every Jew was serving the Temple, and it never occurred to me how they really looked. We had learned from the Bible that G-d had blessed Abraham and his seed after him, so I wanted to invite him into my house so my house would be blessed."
As mentioned, in Alfredo’s community, Jews were very popular. The nicknames that Jews were called show this: "Our big brothers" and “ambassadors of the Creator" were commonly used terms.
"When the Jew arrived, everyone stood in line to be able to touch him. We wanted to hear about Judaism from him, and he started telling us some sayings of the sages. We never heard the sages’ teachings or commentaries. For the first time in our lives, we heard that there are things which explain everything, and intersect with what we read in the Bible. When we asked him where he got his knowledge from, he explained that besides the Written Law, G-d also gave an Oral Tradition to explain it. We were thrilled to hear what he had to say, every word was a new discovery for us. Despite the late hour, even the children were quiet and didn’t make noise. Everyone felt his special status."
Indeed, the community didn’t quickly forget that night.
"A few days later, I handed him a bundle of questions to solve. He was honest and told me: 'I do not know how to answer these questions. But you should know that this is not because there are no answers. If you are serious, come to the Jewish community in Mexico City. They have rabbis to whom You can ask questions."
Alfredo was in the middle of a college semester and immersed in baseball games. How could he leave everything and go suddenly to Mexico City?
"I wasn’t sufficiently convinced of the need to travel to convince others of the importance of the trip. But one thing was clear to me: this was an opportunity not to be missed! I knew that if I wouldn’t join him for the journey, my loss may be for eternity. I decided to go."
It was 25 years ago, in the spring. Alfredo came to Mexico City, and for the first time in his life, he saw the majesty of the Jewish people. "I came to the community on Wednesday, and on Friday night, my Jewish friend Nissim Yosef took me to attend prayers in the synagogue. He slipped easily inside, and I remained outside, petrified. A few minutes later he noticed that I had not entered, and came out to look for me. He saw me weeping and left me alone. Suddenly I realized that the Bible was not a history book. The Bible is alive!
"I knew the Bible almost by heart. We reviewed it constantly, because we didn’t learn other books. I remembered the verse in Psalms that I used to read in the church, "One thing I ask of the Lord and that alone I seek, I would like to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Is this desire attainable?, I asked myself all the time. I could understand the desire to remain in G-d's house a couple of hours, but all the days of one’s life? I didn’t have the tools to understand it. When I stood in front of the synagogue in Mexico City, tremendous excitement took hold of me and at that moment I understood what King David desired."
In Mexico City, Alfredo received an appropriate response to all his questions. He quickly found the truth, and then the way to realize it was clear. He converted to Judaism, left Mexico, immigrated to Israel, married and settled in Chashmonaim. Surprisingly many of his parishioners went through a similar process, including his mother (who lives today in Jerusalem) and his nine siblings who live across the country in chareidi areas. Guided by rabbis, they settled in different places, each one in the place appropriate for him, so that their transition would be easier.
Unlike Hollywood movies, the ending wasn’t very romantic. His father and older sister preferred to remain Christians and stayed in Mexico. His father found the conversion of almost his entire family very difficult, but in the end he made peace with their move.
"Rabbi Ben Zion Abba Shaul of blessed memory instructed me not to talk to my father regarding Judaism, but to focus solely on the mitzvah of honoring parents. The only thing I said to him on the subject was: ‘Dad, your whole life you prayed that we, your children, should grow up and become servants of G-d. And now I am truly a servant of G-d. If I joined the Jewish people — it was in fulfillment of your prayers.’ He had nothing to answer."
Rabbi Yehuda Peretz’s appearance does not reflect in any way the journey he underwent. A black skullcap on his head, a buttoned-down shirt, a black suit on top. He looks like a typical Orthodox Jew. But he still remembers where he came from and the gift he acquired.
"I still remember how surprised I was that Shabbat in Mexico City, seeing how the Jews integrate the physical with the spiritual in their service of G-d. Suddenly I realized the meaning of holiness in a completely different way. I compare it to millions of mosquitoes who want to produce honey — but they can not because G-d gave the production of honey exclusively to the bee. Millions of gentiles speak about holiness, but they never touch this value because the Jewish people of Israel have it exclusively!"
About fifteen years ago, a Mexican film director produced a film about the story of the community in general, and the story of Yehuda-Alfredo in particular. According to the Rabbi, the work on the film is close to finish, and soon it will be screened at various movie theaters.
Helped in collecting materials: Sara Gross