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How do you convert a young man from the Amazon who lived his whole life as a Jew?

What does a young man feel when he has grown up his whole life as a Jew, and one bright day discovers that he is not actually Jewish according to Jewish law? This is exactly what happened to Moshe Pereira (18), who grew up in a Jewish community on the banks of the Amazon in Brazil, when he arrived in Israel for high school studies. Despite the identity crisis that came in the wake of the discovery, Moshe decided to immigrate to Israel during the difficult days of war, and is now in the midst of the conversion process with dreams of serving in the Armored Corps.

Matan Waserman, June 11, 2024

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Moshe and his sister, who lives in Alon Shvut

Ever since Moshe Pereira (18) can remember, his Jewish identity has been an integral part of him. The young man, who grew up in the Jewish community of Manaus on the banks of Brazil’s Amazon River, went through all the milestones that any traditional Jew goes through – circumcision, bar mitzvah, communal holidays, and a synagogue that was an integral part of his life. However, when he reached the age of ten and decided to travel to Israel for his high school years, he couldn’t have imagined the discovery he was about to make that would shake his core identity: that according to Jewish law, he is not Jewish.

“I lived as a Jew and didn’t know anything else,” Moshe says. “I studied in a public school in my city in Brazil, but I didn’t have friends from school because we were forbidden to hang out and connect with children who were not from the Jewish community,” he says.

The community where Moshe lived has its roots in Morocco. The Jews arrived in the Amazon about 200 years ago, when between 1810 and 1910, about a thousand Jewish families from Morocco arrived in the Amazon region, some of whom settled in the large cities of Belem and Manaus (650 families). Alongside them, thousands of young Jewish men also arrived in these areas, leaving their families behind in Morocco to earn a living for their households.

Over the years, many of those young men married local women. But despite the intermarriage, there was no assimilation and they maintained their practice of Judaism, even though their children are not considered Jewish according to Jewish law. “In light of the fact that this is a patriarchal society in which the fathers are very authoritative, it was the Jewish identity of the father that set the tone in the home and these families maintained their Jewish identity in full,” explains Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum, director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Spanish-speaking conversion ulpan.

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Moshe as a child with his parents and siblings, on Chanukah in Brazil

This was also the case with Moshe’s family – “My father is Jewish, his family originally from Morocco, and my mother is from Brazil and not Jewish,” he says. “We lived a completely Jewish life – we had a mezuzah, we made Kiddush every Friday, we kept kosher, we went to synagogue with our mother every week even though she’s not Jewish, we celebrated all the holidays and there wasn’t a day when my father didn’t put on tefillin,” he adds.

“The community was a very central part of our lives, and we really strengthened each other a lot,” Moshe says. “We prayed in the Moroccan style (with a Moroccan-style prayer book that is different from the Sephardic or Ashkenazic style familiar in Israel). We children knew all the prayers by heart, some of us were even cantors. Our fathers kept us separate, far away from the non-Jewish community.”

Upon arriving in Israel for high school studies, like many of the young people from the community in Brazil, Moshe discovered for the first time that he was not Jewish according to Jewish law. “It was a big break and I felt lost,” he says painfully. “I wondered who and what I was.” After finishing his studies he returned to Brazil, but despite the great crisis he went through with the discovery, he eventually decided to immigrate to Israel and undergo conversion according to Orthodox Jewish law. “Jewish identity is the only identity I know and am familiar with, it is a part of me, and I didn’t want to give it up,” he says.

The war that broke out in October, as well as the news and images that began to stream out of Israel reshuffled the deck and called Moshe’s plans into question.

“When we heard about the war in the community, there was great fear,” he says. “There wasn’t really an understanding of what was going on and the course of events, because ultimately we were fed by the local media. I was afraid of immigrating, because of the fear that they would draft me right away when I arrived, and how I would manage – and I really hesitated whether this was the right time to take this step,” he shares.

Despite the fears, Moshe eventually decided to immigrate and three months ago, in the midst of the war, he arrived in Israel. Here he joined his three sisters who had already immigrated, converted, and started families. “My parents were very happy that we immigrated to Israel, in spite of my father understanding that he would no longer be able to come to be with us in Israel because of his age,” he says.

Upon his arrival in Israel, Moshe joined the Orthodox Ohr Torah Stone Spanish-speaking conversion program. “Many high school students from Yemin Orde (the youth village near Haifa where Moshe attended high school) come to us for conversion,” notes Rabbanit Birnbaum. “Because of the emissaries from the Ohr Torah Stone network working in the Amazon Jewish communities, we have a connection of several generations coming to us. These are children with such a mature Jewish identity, and this is a very delicate situation that requires a very targeted process,” she adds.

These days, Moshe is in the midst of the conversion process through the OTS Ulpan, which he is waiting to complete so that he can be drafted. “I want to be inducted as soon as I finish the conversion,” he says. “I want to serve in the Armored Corps, like my brother-in-law Rafael, who also immigrated from Brazil.”

Rafael Yitzhak Israel (40), Moshe’s brother-in-law, also comes from the Jewish community in Brazil – from the city of Belem. His grandfather and grandmother came from Morocco to Brazil, like many Jews, in pursuit of a livelihood. Eventually, his father married a local non-Jewish woman.

Like Moshe, he too grew up his whole life as a Jew – until the discovery that Jewish law does not recognize him as such. “We were a Jewish family in every respect,” says Rafael. “We viewed ourselves as Jewish, and there was no question about it at all. My grandfather was the synagogue gabbai and we grew up inside the synagogue – prayers, Shabbat, and holidays. I received my entire Jewish identity from my community, even from my mother – even though she was not Jewish, something we didn’t even know in our childhood.

“I grew up in a house where I saw my mother light candles on Friday nights and we had Shabbat meals together. She pushed us to go to the synagogue,” he adds.

Rafael explains that his family, like many of the families in the community he grew up in, was traditional – “We made Kiddush and then turned on the TV,” he says. “If my father heard that God forbid I mixed meat and milk, he would get very angry, but the fact that I watched soccer on TV on Shabbat didn’t bother him,” he says.

“Towards the preparations for my older brother’s bar mitzvah, my parents started talking about the need to convert in São Paulo, and there was a first understanding that something wasn’t ‘quite right’ about our Judaism,” he says. “We still didn’t fully understand, but slowly it became clearer and the discovery brought crisis.”

Rafael notes that he never left the religion, but there was a period of some distancing. During that period, he was around ten years old and was considered a rebellious and unconventional teenager. Since there was no Jewish school in the area, his parents sent him to study in a monastery that was known for its discipline. “From the first day, I said I was Jewish and was exempted from religion classes and prayers in the church,” he says. “It was important for me to put things on the table and announce to my surroundings that I was Jewish.”

His grandfather, who felt that he might get lost in light of the reality and emotional processes he was going through, pushed for him to come to Israel. And so, at the age of 15, he too, like Moshe, came to Israel to study at Yemin Orde. where he slowly began to return to Judaism. “I decided not to convert until I knew I could complete it,” he says. “One of my fears about conversion was losing my identity, because the whole perception of being religious abroad is very influenced by the ultra-Orthodox approach, and that felt far from me,” he says. “I didn’t want to forget where I came from or belittle my tradition,” he adds.

After high school, Rafael returned to Brazil for a year to make a final decision whether to stay there or return to Israel. “As soon as I returned to Brazil, I wanted to return to Israel, because I no longer felt at home,” he relates. He immigrated to Israel in 2004, and began the conversion process at Ohr Torah Stone’s ulpan.

“From the very first lesson, Rabbanit Renana really understood our feelings and soul, and that was a great relief for the concerns I had about the process,” he says. “I understood that I could be who I am and it’s not contradictory; on the contrary – it’s all part of serving God. I understood that I could be religious and still be Rafael who came from a Moroccan family, who loves soccer and plays the guitar. I know kids who came here and went in a more ultra-Orthodox direction, and many times, despite that, they were treated differently and they felt like gentiles. On the other hand, I have a cousin whose identity crisis distanced him from Judaism and he still hasn’t returned,” he concludes.

Read the original article (in Hebrew)

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