It was supposed to be modest weekend trip by two Jewish congregations from South Florida who wanted to go to Guatemala to thank the country for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But due to the involvement of a well-connected organization promoting the Jewish state in the Spanish-speaking world, the “mission of gratitude” to the Central American nation turned into a Jewish-Christian Israel lovefest, attended by Guatemalan top brass, including President Jimmy Morales.
Over the weekend, some 35 members of of the Conservative Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach and the Orthodox Palm Beach Synagogue were joined by 30 Evangelical Christians, a former US congresswoman, senior Jewish community officials, Israeli and American diplomats and Guatemalan dignitaries to celebrate the country’s longstanding friendship with Israel.
On December 24, Morales had announced his intention to relocate Guatemala’s embassy to Jerusalem, making his country the first to follow the US, which on December 6 recognized the city as Israel’s capital.
“I was so grateful to the people living in this country. I know it’s not an easy thing,” said Margot Cohen, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor who went on the trip, alluding to backlash against Guatemala’s decision to recognize Jerusalem.
“I lived long enough to know what it is to be on the flip side of life,” she told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview Sunday from Guatemala City, moments before flying back to Florida.
She added: “There really wasn’t a moment since I stepped off the plane that wasn’t absolutely beautiful. This was one of the most wonderful experience of my life.”
It was “a once-in-a-lifetime moment of history,” gushed Peter Bendetson, who organized the trip.
“The intensity of support for Israel and for the move of the embassy from both the Christian members of our delegation and the Guatemalan president and foreign minister has been so incredible that it defies belief,” he said.
Guatemala has had very friendly ties with Israel since before the state was founded.
In 1947, Guatemala’s ambassador to the UN, Dr. Jorge Garcia Granados, played a crucial role in convincing Latin American countries to vote in favor of General Assembly Resolution 181, which called for the partition of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
Guatemala was one of the first countries to recognize the nascent State of Israel in 1948, and the friendship has remained strong ever since.
Having arrived in Guatemala City on Thursday afternoon, the synagogue members were joined by Malcolm Hoenlein, the vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Organizations, and some 30 members of Christian pro-Israel groups from the USA, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.
I wish Israelis liked Israel as much as these Christians do
Later that day, they all gathered at the National Palace of Culture for a dinner attended by President Morales — a devout Evangelical — along with Vice President Jafeth Cabrera, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel, Guatemalan Ambassador to Washington Manuel Espina, Israeli Ambassador in Guatemala Matanya Cohen, members of the Guatemala’s tiny Jewish community and local Christian associations.
Michele Bachmann, a former Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, also attended the event.
Morales’s office later highlighted the event — said to be the first-ever kosher meal served by the Guatemalan government — on its social media channels.
#InformeNacional | Organizaciones pro-Israel reconocen decisión del presidente Jimmy Morales de reconocer a Jerusalén como capital de Israel.
Posted by Gobierno de Guatemala on Friday, 26 January 2018
On Friday morning, Jovel, the foreign minister, spent another two hours with the group.
Later that day, both Jews and Christians prayed at a local synagogue and had Shabbat dinner together with the Israeli ambassador.
“I go to Shabbat services in Houston and whenever I’m in Israel. But to come to a Spanish-speaking country, sit there and sing ‘Lecha Dodi’ and all the other prayers was truly wonderful,” said Becky Keenan, who heads a Christian organization called “One with Israel.”
“It was a symbol of what’s happening across Latin America,” added Keenan, a pastor at the Gulf Meadows Church in Houston, Texas. “Jews and Christians work shoulder to shoulder, as we should, for what is in my opinion obviously the right thing to do — as an American, as a woman, as a Christian, as a Zionist. Even if you were an atheist, mind you, you should know that it’s right to support Israel.”
On Saturday evening, the group participated an event honoring Israel attended by hundreds of Guatemalan Evangelical Christians.
“These Christians were singing and praying in Hebrew. Everything was about Israel and the chosen people — it was fascinating,” said Ilan Kottler, the president of Temple Beth El.
“I wish Israelis liked Israel as much as these Christians do. It shows that we’re not alone in the world,” added Kottler, who grew up in Tel Aviv but has lived in West Palm Beach since 1995.
The idea behind the trip was born when two South Florida congregations thought of a way to thank Guatemala for its diplomatic move.
“Together with the entire Jewish world, we were overjoyed when the US decided to move its embassy to Yerushalayim,” Rabbi Moshe Scheiner, the Palm Beach Synagogue’s spiritual leader, told The Times of Israel earlier this month, using the city’s Hebrew name.
After Guatemala became the first country to follow suit, the congregation invited Leslye Samanta Illescas, the country’s vice consul in Lake Worth, Florida, to attend Shabbat services.
Israel’s consul-general in New York, Dani Dayan, also spent that weekend at the Palm Beach Synagogue. In a speech he delivered there, he recalled that his late father, Moshe Dayan, was the Israeli ambassador to Guatemala in the early 1980s and had tried very hard to get the government to move its embassy back to Jerusalem.
“It was a very moving experience and inspired us to embark as a community to personally thank the people of Guatemala for their friendship and courage,” Scheiner said. “Gratitude is the most fundamental principle of Judaism and this is a wonderful opportunity to practice it.”
The trip’s organizers then contacted Gloria Garcés, who works for Fuente Latina, a nonprofit trying to connect Israel to the Spanish-speaking world. Garcés, whose Evangelical family in Guatemala has been trying for years to get the government to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped arrange the VIP meetings and invited other Christian activists to join.
“We felt like rock stars. People wanted to take pictures with us, touch us and give us hugs,” Kottler told The Times of Israel. “I’ve been to many places in the world — Colombia, Cuba, Morocco, Russia, I’ve been to Europe — but I’ve never ever seen so much love for Jews, not even close.”