Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn is no ordinary rabbi. Born in Brazil, he now presides over a small congregation in Kansas that consists of about 80 families.
But every Saturday, the congregation skyrockets with people from across Latin America logging onto his virtual synagogue to attend services. He live-streams Shabbat morning services in Portuguese at 7am and in Spanish at 10am.
In addition to the online synagogue, he also provides virtual instruction for people interested in converting to Judaism. Currently, he is helping 100 people in six countries study for conversion.
Cukierkorn's effort is unique. Eventually, the rabbi travels to the country to administer the traditional rites of conversion.
But this decision isn't popular with everyone — including many Jews. Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with Rabbi Cukierkorn about his controversial outreach work.
Interview Highlights: Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
On the Latin American community he grew up in
"São Paulo is one of the largest Jewish towns in Latin America. There may be 100, 150,000 Jews. But they live in a very insular way, as a result perhaps of persecutions of the past, security concerns perhaps. They really are not interested in having relationships with people from the outside."
On why he helps Latin Americans convert to Judaism
"You know, I believe there is an awful lot of trauma that’s handed down in the Jewish population, be it the inquisition, be it the Holocaust, and I think this trauma is almost passed genetically from one generation to the other. I cannot undo that, but what I can do is reach out to people that need help, that want connections with Judaism. That is what I consider to be my mission, it’s what makes me feel worthwhile, it makes – it gives meaning to my life. ... I think that every time I perform one more conversion, I’m not only impacting on the current Jewish world, I’m creating a whole new Jewish world. There are babies being born today as Jews because I converted their mom and dad or their mom or dad."
On interested converts facing opposition from local communities
"It’s a very complex reality, different than ours here in the States. The Jewish community has challenges, threats, they are fearful of outsiders. They are very cautious to allow people — especially those who can’t prove their Jewish identity. So, and for me, the proof is in their heart, is in their longing, is in their desire to learn, to participate. And I try to be this bridge between their longing and the Jewish community."
On the demographics of his online congregation
"There are all kinds, from the humblest people who live so isolated they don’t even have a computer and they have to go to Internet cafes, to doctors and lawyers and the people who, for instance, they wish to convert or become Jewish or learn about Judaism but their spouses won't, so they will not be accepted anyway. We don’t discriminate on any base, and we are certainly very open to homo and heterosexuals, and this is a unique thing because many, many people approach us that have had the doors closed on their faces because of who they are."
This segment aired on January 28, 2014.