After their ancestors journeyed across an ocean from the edge of the Sahara to the center of the Amazon, their current numbers have dwindled in the wake of grim economic prospects and geographic isolation. Yet the pulse keeps beating for the Jewish community of Iquitos, Peru.
“We as a community in Iquitos are trying to create a Jewish life, which is not easy, because the conditions for it do not exist,” said community leader Rebeca Abramovitz in an interview in Spanish.
Located in Loreto, Peru’s northernmost region, Iquitos is the largest city in the world unreachable by road. Visitors must either fly in or arrive by boat along the Amazon River.
Jews constitute only a fraction of a percent of the city’s population, which numbered just under 440,000 last year. The Jewish community of Iquitos consists of about 70 individuals, led by president Jorge Abramovitz, Rebeca’s husband. (There is also a smaller population of under 40 Jews in the city of Pucallpa to the south.)
The Iquitos community does not have a rabbi, and meets for worship in the Abramovitz house. Its members represent a fraction of the hundreds of people who once practiced Judaism by the banks of the Amazon.
Yet if their numbers are small, their story is compelling. They are the descendants of entrepreneurs who left Morocco for the promise of riches in the Amazon rubber boom in the late 19th century. Their Judaism has been revived by visits from rabbis elsewhere in Peru, as well as Argentina, the United States and Israel. Some have even undertaken another journey, to Israel, where they have made aliyah or are striving to do so.
Earlier this year, a media report had forecast a bleak future for the community. But those members who stay in Iquitos continue to practice Judaism together, and regularly convene for events such as High Holiday services. In so doing, they preserve their ties with their ancestors who arrived in the Peruvian Amazon almost 150 years ago.
The first Jew to immigrate to Loreto was Alfredo Coblentz, a German Jew who arrived in the city of Yurimaguas, southwest of Iquitos, in 1880. In 1885, the first year of the Amazon rubber boom, the Pinto brothers — Moises, Abraham and Jaime — immigrated to Iquitos itself. While they only lived there for five years, “they opened the road for the arrival of new immigrants,” Abramovitz said.
The rubber boom caused a mass migration of people representing different countries and religions.
“It brought businessmen and rubber workers from distinct regions of the world [to Iquitos], and among them, Jews from Morocco came,” said Rabbi Ruben Saferstein of Buenos Aires, who has been assisting the Jews of Iquitos for 15 years.
It was not an easy journey. Jews from Rabat, Tetuan, Tangier and Casablanca arrived in the Brazilian coastal city of Belen do Para and trekked along the Amazon — the second-longest river in the world, after the Nile — further inland to Manaus.
From there, Abramovitz said, “they scattered throughout the Peruvian Amazonian rainforest.”
Iquitos: Peru’s rubber boom town
“There was a tremendous amount of money to be made there, in the rubber industry in the Amazon, in Peru and Brazil,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, Jerusalem-based director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel for the Masorti Movement, who visited Iquitos last Pesach.
Luxurious mansions soon lined the streets of Iquitos, including the Casa Fierro (Iron House) designed by Gustave Eiffel, whose namesake tower in Paris earned architectural immortality. The Casa Fierro remains an Iquitos landmark.
But the rubber boom also had adverse effects. One Iquitos-based company with a British board of directors, the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), was the subject of critical reports by Roger Casement, the British consul in Peru. Casement found that the PAC abused its indigenous workers. After public outcry, the company closed in 1913.
The Amazon rubber boom itself had collapsed by 1912, owing to several factors, including a drop in the price of rubber; the emergence of larger zones of production, such as Indonesia; and the arrival of synthetic rubber.
Many Jews in Iquitos returned to their countries of origin — but not all.
By January 1909, enough Jews had begun residing in Iquitos to establish a formal community, the Sociedad Beneficiencia Israelita de Iquitos.
In Iquitos, Jews achieved success in both business and public life. Several became mayors of the city, including Victor Israel (who was also the first community president) and Joseph Dreyfus. Some founded businesses — La Casa Israel, Khan, and Cohen, along with Solomon Joseph and E. Strasberger.
The Jews who stayed after the boom were in an uncertain position. The rubber industry that fueled their commerce with Europe had vanished, and their legacy as Jews was in question.
“The great majority of Jews who came [to Iquitos] were men who could not leave Jewish descendants because they could not take Jewish women as wives, and settled down with women of the region,” Abramovitz said. However, she added, “they undoubtedly tried to keep their Jewish identity and pass it on to their children.”
Each year, she said, the Jews of the region celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with religious services.
But their numbers plummeted.
Abramovitz said that emigration to the capital of Lima was “massive” in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, centers of Jewish life in almost every Peruvian province had disappeared.
“Our community stayed dormant for many years,” she recalled.
A sleeper community awakens
It was not until the 1980s that the community of Iquitos was able to reawaken.
When several community members traveled to Lima, Peru’s capital, for medical treatments in 1987, they made contact with Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, chief rabbi of the Asociacion Judia. Lima has the largest population of Peruvian Jews (3,000), and with about 223 families, Bronstein’s synagogue is the largest in the capital.
In a Skype conversation from Lima, Bronstein told The Times of Israel he felt “curiosity” and that he exchanged letters with the community of Iquitos before deciding to visit in 1991. Then, Bronstein found a community of people who wished to identify as Jews but were not recognized as Jews.
As Sacks described it, “there is a large percentage of people in that town who have a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent, [and are now] practicing Catholics, who have recently connected to a Jewish community or to the Jewish world.”
When Bronstein made his first visit to Iquitos, he laid the groundwork for the community to formally confirm its Judaism — individually and collectively. Members organized themselves as a kehila, a Jewish community of partners recognized by the Republic of Peru. They achieved this status about a year and a half later, in 1994.
Bronstein then helped the kehila prepare for a formal conversion by a beit din, or rabbinical court. This process took much longer.
“It was 11 years after [my first visit],” he said. “It was very difficult. I couldn’t visit there [more than] two or three times in 11 years. I sent them materials, siddurim [prayer books]. They wrote to me with their [preparation] work.”
These were not the only challenges.
“Circumcision was the hardest of all,” Bronstein said. “The adults did not have a mohel [circumciser].” And, he added, a mohel he located in Lima “was not going to go for less than a month for 40 to 50 people.”
‘Circumcision was the hardest of all’
By August 2002, Bronstein had found a qualified mohel willing to travel to Iquitos. A beit din followed, assisted by Rabbi Claudio Kupchik of Temple Beth El of Manhattan Beach.
“If we had not had the help of Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, the community of Iquitos would not still exist,” Abramovitz said.
About a century after Jews had first arrived in Iquitos, the kehila and its members were formally recognized. Over the next few years, the congregation benefited from outreach by rabbis from other countries.
In December 2004, Bronstein presided over a second beit din with his brother Marcelo, who serves as a rabbi in New York, as well as Saferstein, of Buenos Aires. Over three days, they evaluated around 180 candidates from Iquitos and neighboring regions.
In February 2009, the kehila received a Torah scroll over 100 years old from Rabbi Fabian Zaidemberg of La Asociacion Israelita de las Pampas in Argentina. David and Nilma Igdaloff, an American Jewish couple, had donated the Torah to Zaidemberg after it had been rescued from Nazi Germany.
A third beit din was held in 2011. And, as the Jews of Iquitos continue to rediscover and reconnect with their roots, there is an increasing interest in making aliyah.
Obstacles toward immigration to Israel
The story of the Amazonian aliyah is an unfolding one and includes community members now living in Israel as citizens, members who would like to make aliyah, and individuals in Israel who are not currently recognized as Israeli citizens.
The Interior Ministry has recognized Iquitos as a Jewish community and its members as eligible for aliyah, but it took a “long battle,” said Sacks, the director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.
The majority of olim from Iquitos live in Ramla.
“The mayor was happy to receive them,” Sacks said. “There were social, employment programs. They were absorbed in order to be more successful.”
However, Sacks is unhappy with the Interior Ministry and its treatment of Jews from Iquitos who wish to join their fellow Iquitenos in Israel.
“The pace of aliyah has slowed to a trickle,” Sacks said. “There have been all sorts of excuses. I found it to be a problem.”
Petitioning the Supreme Court
The Legal Aid Center for Olim, a project of the Israel Reform Movement, has petitioned the Supreme Court to hear a case involving two sisters from Pucallpa who converted to Judaism in Iquitos in 2011. They have been in Israel since February 2014.
“At the moment one of the two sisters from Pucallpa has a working visa after she began a serious relationship with an Israeli and in fact has given birth to his child,” said Nicole Maor, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Center for Olim. “The other sister is here with no status at all, under the protection of a Supreme Court order preventing her deportation.”
The Interior Ministry “has argued that the community in Pucallpa was not a ‘recognized’ community at the time of the conversion and therefore although the conversion itself was performed in Iquitos, they refuse to recognize them,” Maor said.
‘The great majority of Iquitenos have gone to live in Israel’
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the petition in January 2017.
Asked how strong the current desire is to make aliyah among the Jews of Iquitos, Sacks said, “Almost all of the young ones desire to leave. The opportunity to advance professionally and socially is very limited. They seek a second chance everywhere in Latin American countries. Many have gone, and in fact would go, to Israel.”
“The jungle is not a pleasant place to live,” he said. “The opportunities are rather limited. People realize, they are the third generation of a Jewish grandfather, grandmother, and eligible to make aliyah. Many did, many converted to Judaism and ultimately made aliyah. About 150 left for Israel.”
Indeed, he noted, the current community in Iquitos is “much reduced, owing to aliyah.”
“The great majority of Iquitenos [people from Iquitos] have gone to live in Israel,” Saferstein said. “There are some other people who are waiting for their conversion process, and desire to go to Israel, as well, to live there.”
Saferstein expressed hope for another beit din to visit Iquitos in January 2017, but said that economic assistance is needed for this.
Despite gloomy predictions for the future of Iquitos’s Jews due to their shrinking population, Bronstein, who led the first beit din 14 years ago, is more hopeful.
‘They will continue with their Jewish identity. Even if three, four, five people remain, they have the structure, the community’
“They will continue with their Jewish identity,” he said. “They already have an organization. They are smaller, but I believe they will continue. Even if three, four, five people remain, they have the structure, the community.”
Last year, Sacks experienced this community firsthand.
“When I arrived at the airport, probably most of the community, around 40 people were there, with Israeli flags, singing, welcoming me,” he said.
Asked whether the community identifies as Sephardic, he said, “Many of them have a great-grandparent who was Sephardic (usually from Morocco), but the Jews are removed from many of those traditions. They have been Jewishly educated, primarily by Masorti rabbis. So, while they have some Sephardic tunes, it is very much a mix.”
On Shabbat, he said, “The davening was identical to pretty much any other synagogue.”
He joined the community for a Passover seder in the Abramovitz house, with fish and vegetarian options, “no bread on the table” and locally-flavored charoset.
“They kashered everything,” he said.
He noted a community custom. An Israeli flag is displayed atop a table “every year till the last Jew from Iquitos who wishes to make aliyah is able to do so,” he said.
More recently, the community has been busy again, this time for the High Holidays.
In an October 3 photo of the Rosh Hashanah dinner, over 30 community members are sitting down to eat at tables, welcoming the new year 5777. There are national and international symbols — Peruvian and Israeli flags — as well as religious and cultural decorations such as cutouts of shofars and a glowing Star of David.
As the Jews of Iquitos celebrated the new year, it showed that even in the isolation of the Amazon, a Jewish community can survive. Though its numbers may be diminished, inextinguishable sparks of communal life continue to be stoked on the edge of the rainforest.