The events of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel continue around the world. This week, the Jewish community of the Amazon, with only 500 Jews, was visited by an Israeli delegation which held classes and talks for members of the community. At the end, they all joined in singing Hatikva.
Published in Kipa – June 28, 2018
The first Jews arrived in the rain forests some 200 years ago, in 1810. In the wake of difficulties of subsistence and livelihood in the cities of Morocco, the population explosion in the Jewish neighborhoods, diseases, the imprisonment of Jews by the authorities, the destruction of synagogues, persecution and suffering, the Moroccan Jews – direct descendants of those who had been banished from Spain by the Catholic kings – decided to emigrate to the Amazon in search of peace and tranquility. In addition, when a trade agreement between Brazil and Britain was signed in 1810 and ports were opened in Brazil, the Inquisition’s laws in Brazil formally ended, and the country was in the process of development and prosperity.
The Jews who came to the Amazon did not expect to be rich, only to live their lives in peace and quiet. They came to Brazil and began to slowly build their lives while coping with the conditions of the local jungle and the language, but always in keeping with the Jewish traditions that they had imbibed and learned from their families. Jewish life was not conducted in organized communities and in the big cities. The Jews, who arrived with nothing, were looking for a place as remote as possible to bring a livelihood to their home. However, despite the physical distance and lack of connection to the Jewish community and the synagogue, the Jews did not feel lonely. Maintaining the traditions and the Jewish holidays, the feeling that they were part of a Jewish tribe along the river provided them with a sense of togetherness.
Today there are only about 200 Jewish families in Manaus. Despite the modest size of the community, Jewish education is an important and central factor in its life. Twice a week, about 70 children gather at the Jacob Azulai supplementary school for Jewish and Hebrew studies. Prayers are held every Shabbat in the synagogue with more than 100 worshipers, and in their prayers, they observe the melodies and customs that were customary in Morocco.
Last week, a delegation from the Ohr Torah Stone network’s Straus-Amiel program arrived, met with members of the community and held classes and discussions with them – the first of seven visits to take place over the course of the year. The young people of the community also attended the meetings, where they talked about the meaning of the State of Israel and the values of Zionism.
Among the members of the delegation was Brazilian native Rabbi Avraham Dahab, who had immigrated to Israel at the age of 17 in order to attend Yeshivat HaKotel, where he studied for rabbinic ordination. Rabbi Dahab simultaneously studied in the Straus-Amiel program, which trains rabbis to serve as emissaries in the Diaspora, and about three years ago, he returned to serve as rabbi of the synagogue of the community in which he grew up in Rio de Janeiro. The rabbi said: “One of the evenings my delegation was in Manaus, one of the community’s girls celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. In a community which is very attached to poetry and music, they also sang Hatikva in Ladino, which for Jewish communities abroad is part of their Jewish identity, and Hatikva in Ladino is for them like a holy song. So we decided that at the conclusion of our visit we will sing the anthem not only in Hebrew, but also in Ladino, after a festive meal and an Israeli concert at the local social club.”
The rabbi of the community in Manaus, Rabbi David Ben Shimol, also emigrated from Brazil to Israel in 2008 and is also a graduate of the Straus-Amiel training program. “The culture in Brazil and everyone’s weekly schedule usually do not allow for some of the events that we held here this week, but surprisingly and happily, there were many young people at these events, the visit was successful and the community enjoyed it very much. Now we are already awaiting the next visit.”