The Peruvian Villager Who Led Hundreds of His Countrymen to Judaism and Israel

August 22, 2022 | Renee Ghert-Zand
About the author:

Zerubbabel Tzidkiya, born Segundo Villanueva in 1927 in the Andean village of Rodacocha, died in 2008 and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. While his story, and those of the hundreds of his fellow Peruvians whom he led to Judaism, has been told before, Graciela Mochkofsky contends that it has often been gotten wrong—including, she admits, by herself. In a new edition of her 2006 book on the subject, she hopes to set the record straight. Renee Ghert-Zand writes in her review:

The story . . . began with Villanueva, at the time a young carpenter, reading the Bible and gathering groups of people around him to read and discuss it with him. Villanueva’s questions and desire to comprehend the true meaning of the word of God were ceaseless. He would engage anyone willing to study. He reached out to local religious scholars and leaders at the Protestant congregations that were cropping up for the first time in Cajamarca, where he lived.

But when he started to ask challenging questions, doors were closed in his face. Taking the Bible in a very literal sense, Villanueva could not understand why the Christians he knew observed the Sabbath on Sunday, in contradiction to what was written in the Five Books of Moses. He eventually joined a church that not only made sense to him but was also welcoming: the Seventh-Day Adventist Reform Movement.

But after some time, Villanueva still didn’t feel right about where he was. So, in 1962, he founded his own church, Israel of God. . . . Still identifying as Christians, members of Israel of God set up congregations in several locations in central-northern Peru, including a small settlement they build themselves in the Amazon in 1967 that they named Hebron.

It wasn’t until Villanueva was able to access a religious bookstore in Peru that sold a variety of translations of the Bible that he realized that translation by default involves errors and interpretations. . . . Ultimately he concluded that Jesus was not the messiah and that he and his flock must become Jews. They would be known as the Bnei Moshe. . . . Then began the complicated politics of the Bnei Moshe’s conversion to Judaism and aliyah to Israel.

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