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Brazil rabbi noted for Kaddish prayer honoring journalist, expert killed in Amazon

‘Do not destroy your trees by wielding the ax against them,’ Rabbi Uri Lam says in widely shared sermon for Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira

Rabbi Uri Lam (Screen capture: Twitter)
Rabbi Uri Lam (Screen capture: Twitter)

RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — A Reform Brazilian rabbi made headlines for paying tribute to the journalist and indigenous community expert who were killed in the Amazon and whose deaths have sparked an international outcry.

In a Jewish mourning service last Friday, Rabbi Uri Lam, who leads Sao Paulo’s Beth-El temple, mentioned British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian Bruno Pereira. The pair were on a reporting trip together earlier this month in the western part of the Amazonas region when they went missing.

Both were working on reports about threats to indigenous communities, and Phillips was writing a book on the deforestation of the Brazilian rainforest.

“My sermon mentioned the duo and included an indigenous chant that resembled a Jewish nigun, with a strong Jewish spirit, repeated several times. In the end, we added their names to the Kaddish [prayer]. It was all very natural,” Lam told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

A two-minute clip from Lam’s service went viral on social media, including in a tweet by Pereira’s widow, Beatriz Matos. Several of Brazil’s largest news sites wrote about the video.

Lam said he was surprised by the massive amount of media attention.

“I was very emotional to see that we conveyed a very positive image of the Jewish community and our sympathetic engagement with the whole society, our empathy with everyone’s suffering,” he said.

In reference to the activists’ struggle for the defense of the environment and native peoples, Lam quoted an excerpt from the Torah’s book of Deuteronomy during the service.

“Do not destroy your trees by wielding the ax against them. You can eat them, but not drop them. For are the trees of the field human, so that they can withdraw when you lay siege to the city?” Lam read.

Phillips and Pereira were both well-versed in the remote Javari Valley’s often violent incursions by illegal miners, hunters, loggers and drug traffickers as they traveled into it.

Phillips brought environmental issues and the Amazon to the pages of the Financial Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and, principally, the Guardian. Pereira was a prominent activist.

“Bruno had left his Kaddish ready before he died,” noted Brazilian-Jewish historian Michel Gherman wrote on a posting of the video by Jews for Democracy, a left-wing nonprofit. “He appears in a video singing a song for the indigenous peoples of the region. This is his Kaddish! That’s the strength of what he did in life.”

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