Rich With Jewish History, Amazon Basin Faces Spiritual Challenge

Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Arieh Raichman helps a local Jew make a blessing on a lulav and etrog inside of a mobile sukkah in Manaus, Brazil.

by Tamar Runyan

Many a soul has gotten lost in the Amazon Basin. If Rabbi Arieh and Dvorah Lea Raichman have their way, it won’t happen to their fellow Jews.

“There are about 250 Jews here, but they are scattered throughout the Amazon,” said Arieh Raichman, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Manaus, pointing to a community primarily descended from the Moroccan Jewish traders and trappers who plied the waters and banks up and down Brazil’s present-day Amazonas state in the 1800s and early 1900s.

From their headquarters in the state capital – home to a still-standing synagogue dating back to the rubber boom more than 100 years ago – the Raichmans teach Torah classes, host community Sabbath and holiday services, and provide kosher meals to locals and Jewish visitors. But they also reach those spread out all over Amazonas and its neighboring states.

They’re responsible for about 1 million square miles, roughly one third of the country.

In his three years in Manaus, Raichman has visited four other cities, including Porto Velho about 500 miles away, where he recently arranged for the circumcisions of two Jewish men he met last May. For many in the town, it was their first time meeting a rabbi.

“It’s an obligation for every Jewish male to be circumcised, and I am very happy that my son had it done,” Messody Benesby told The Jewish Press soon after her 16-year-old son Saatchel underwent the procedure.

Now, Benesby is in touch with the Raichmans about another issue: She’s looking for a Jewish husband for her 26-year-old daughter Suhellen. So many others are calling about similar problems that the Raichmans see one of their biggest challenges as preserving the community’s Jewish future by helping local men and women meet and eventually marry.

“He keeps telling me, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to marry a Jewish woman,’ ” said Ruth Benaion, a Manaus lawyer who worries that her 35-year-old son Asher, a divorcee and single parent, will intermarry. “How would he lead a Jewish life?”

While Dvorah Leah Raichman – whose parents run the nearest Chabad House, almost 2,000 miles away in the city of Belem – teaches classes to women like Benaion, her husband travels by plane, boat, bus and motor-taxi in search of fellow Jews about once a month. They consider their first mission to help everyone they meet realize how special it is to be Jewish and how one of the greatest expressions of that identity is to marry Jewish and raise a Jewish family.

“People have to be aware and willing,” said Raichman, estimating that about 80 single Jewish people under the age of 40 live in the region “If they don’t marry Jews, the future of the Amazon will need even more help.”

Some young Jews leave the region in their search for spouses.

“It is so important to continue the Jewish traditions, to have a Jewish family,” related 32-year-old Manaus-native Saulo Fouinquinas, who now lives in S. Paulo with the wife he met in Belem and their baby daughter.

Zehev Benzaken, also from Manaus, similarly set his sights elsewhere. He studied at universities in Miami and Australia and returned to Brazil to manage some aquaculture plants. He’s now studying at a yeshiva in Israel, where he hopes to find a wife.

Those are some of the success stories, acknowledged Raichman. “Some, however, don’t want to leave. For them, we have to find them spouses here. We have to help them.”

In some cases, matchmakers in larger Brazilian cities can help. But the Raichmans are also planning a large youth gathering in Manaus to bring everyone together.

“Because of the distance, though, we can’t do anything without a big sponsor,” he said.

Ever mindful of the Amazon’s potential as a tourist epicenter, the Raichmans are also concentrating their efforts on the foreign backpackers who explore the local rainforests.

“We had just finished a jungle tour in the rainforest,” recalled Israeli Chen Shufan, who came to Brazil on vacation with her family last month. “And we wanted to celebrate Passover. So we called the Chabad House in Manaus.”

In addition to all their other pursuits, Arieh Raichman is developing a specialized Jewish-themed tour of the Amazon Basin. He likens the two local rivers, the Amazon and the Rio Negro, to the Kabbalistic attributes of kindness and severity.

“Many of us believe that like these two rivers, the two attributes cannot meet and work together,” he explained. “But if you accustom yourself to using both attributes together, you can overcome your challenges and attain beauty and amazement.”

courtesy News