Photo Credit: Jewish Press

On January 29, in the year 1810, when Pedro Domingo Murillo was about to be hanged for leading the revolution to liberate South America from Spain, he declared, “Compatriots, I die, but tyrants won’t be able to extinguish the torch I ignited. Long live freedom!” At that moment, he could not have imagined that the torch he had lit would impact the great-grandson of his great-grandson who similarly went against the tide and found the light of Torah more than 200 years later.

Even before Yitzchak was born into his noble Christian family in Bolivia, his grandmother had a dream that he would one day become a Jew and wear tzitzis. His parents, however, had other plans for him and sent him from a young age to study to become a priest. He learned about a faith-based religion that heavily emphasizes the consequences of reward and punishment.


Already at five years of age, Yitzchak began to question what he was taught. The afterlife he heard about frightened him. He learned that one’s actions are less important than one’s belief in “Oso ha’ish.” Heretics are sent to Gehennom forever, while believers are sent to shamayim (a translation of the term they used), where the roads are paved with gold and delicious fruit abound. Yitzchak could not come to terms with such an extreme form of punishment. He was unsettled and anxious, constantly asking questions. His mother attributed his agitated state to the presence of demons that had taken over his body. She sent him to an exorcist to remove the demons. This experience proved traumatic for Yitzchak and motivated him to try to “behave.”

But Yitzchak could not subdue the burning questions and doubts that plagued his mind. How could a wicked person go to shamayim just because he was a believer? Why should people never exposed to Christianity be looked upon as sinners and automatically go to Gehennom? How can one’s afterlife depend solely on one’s belief? None of this made any sense to the young Yitzchak.

After a second trip to the exorcist, Yitzchak stopped asking questions but internally continued to struggle. He viewed himself as a bad person for being unable to accept the philosophies of his teachers. He had nightmares about burning in Gehennom and became depressed. He cried often and refused to eat. He was in a constant state of turmoil. Yitzchak’s parents sent him to a psychologist who reassured him that he would find his truth. Yitzchak was then able to look at the world through more positive eyes.

Yitzchak began to resent the education he had received and reacted by immersing himself in the philosophical works of Socrates, Plato, Nietzsche, and others. He was disturbed by the absurdity of theories claiming that everything that transpires in the world is happenstance. Not wanting to live in a world without a plan, Yitzchak set out to find the truth. He davened to Hashem that He should relieve him of his fears and suffering and show him the way. He promised that if Hashem would help him, he would never again tell a lie.

Yitzchak had come from a family of means which made no demands on him to help others. Before his promise, he would tease children and engage in other undesirable behaviors. Once Yitzchak stopped lying, he involved himself in more positive pursuits. For the first time, he experienced the satisfaction of doing for others. He learned that the appreciative smile on the face of someone to whom he gave food was more satisfying than the pleasure of eating the food.

At the age of thirteen, Yitzchak returned to study Christianity. He discovered that priests modify the Bible to suit their needs and agendas. This approach did not sit well with him.

Yitzchak developed a close relationship with a priest who inspired many through his persuasive sermons. The priest was a descendant of Anusim, Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the 14th and 15th centuries. He was familiar with Judaism and would make Kiddush on Friday nights. He owned a collection of seforim that included a Shulchan Aruch, a Midrash on Sefer Bereishis, and a Sefer Maccabim, all translated into Spanish, Yitzchak’s native tongue. The priest would incorporate material from these seforim into his sermons in order to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity.

Yitzchak found these seforim and secretly copied them so that he could read them in private. The books Yitzchak read became his window into Judaism. He discovered the answers to his questions that his teachers had been unable to provide. As he read the Midrash, he learned about Hashem. As he read the Shulchan Aruch, he found the clarity he sought from a detailed and organized description of what Hashem asks of us. He understood that Shabbos, not Sunday, is the day of rest. He learned that we are not permitted to eat pork. Yitzchak yearned to have this clear direction in his life.

Yitzchak read in Sefer Maccabim about the mesirus nefesh displayed by the Maccabees so they could eat kosher food. He read books about the Holocaust and was awed by the mesirus nefesh exhibited by Jews during the Shoah. The extraordinary lengths one mother went to provide her son with a bris milah stirred his soul.

Yitzchak wanted to meet Jews, but there are few in Bolivia. He researched the internet and learned about Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform denominations of Judaism. He chose to explore Orthodoxy as he found it to be the most authentic since it doesn’t make changes to the Mesorah.

Yitzchak read all he could on the Chabad website and began to take on some of what he learned. He grew peyos and decided to keep kosher. Not being knowledgeable as to which foods are kosher, he barely ate. His aunt noticed his weakening condition and sent him to a Jewish bakery that she believed sold kosher food. The unobservant owner told him about the Beit Chabad where an observant family lived.

At the age of 15, accompanied by hunger and the lingering doubts he still had about the existence of Hashem, Yitzchak knocked on the door of the Beit Chabad, hoping to get some kosher food as well as answers to his questions. The Chabad Rabbi typically focused his energies on Israeli tourists and had little interest in working with a non-Jewish teenager. There was also a language barrier as Yitzchak spoke Spanish while everyone at the Beit Chabad spoke Hebrew. Yitzchak persisted until the Rabbi allowed him to join the Chabad as kitchen staff.

Yitzchak’s life changed dramatically at the Beit Chabad. He immersed himself in his studies and learned to speak Hebrew fluently. He learned the Ekronot HaRambam and Chovos Halevavos and understood that it is not enough to believe in Hashem. One must also know Hashem. Through his learning, Yitzchak reached a place of deep emunah in Hashem.

After learning at the Beit Chabad for three years, Yitzchak traveled to Chile to begin the conversion process. That same year, at age twenty, Yitzchak became a full-fledged member of Am Yisrael.

When Yitzchak was twenty-two, he moved to Israel and went to study in yeshiva. That first yeshiva was not the right fit for him, so he left. With no other place to go, he decided to return to Bolivia. He needed a place to sleep until he could make the necessary arrangements. One night, during Aseres Y’mei Teshuva, Yitzchak met a Rav Ochayun in the Itzkowitz shul in Bnei Brak. He asked the Rav if he could sleep in a side room of the shul. Instead, Rav Ochayun invited Yitzchak to sleep in his family’s sukkah. He also helped Yitzchak find a more suitable yeshiva.

Yitzchak flourished in his new yeshiva and grew in his learning. He influenced his mother who now observes the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach. Yitzchak recently married a giyores. He and his wife have chosen to build their bayis ne’eman in Yerushalayim. Yitzchak feels privileged to have been welcomed into Am Yisrael. Having been exposed extensively to the outside world, he understands that there is no other nation like ours.

It is clear to Yitzchak that Hashem loves us and only wants what is best for us. He quotes the Mishna that states, “Bish’vili nivra ha’olam,” “The world was created for me.” “Yitzchak believes that if each member of Am Yisrael would look inside himself and strive for personal growth and improvement, we, as a nation, can bring the Geulah. As we eagerly wait for that moment to arrive, Yitzchak and his wife will continue to pass the torch and spread the light of Torah.

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