There was a fascinating story in the New York Times yesterday detailing one of the many groups of Jews around the world who have struggled to find their place in the Jewish community. Much like the Hispanic Crypto-Jews or the Abayudaya of Uganda, the Times told us the story of the Amazonian Jews of Iquitos, Peru, and how they have “sought to reclaim a Jewish identity that had seemingly been weakened through time.”
Descendents of Jews who came to the area in the “late-19th-century rubber boom,” many started to come together in the late 1990’s. In Lima, the article says, the Jewish community of about 3000 “largely preferred to ignore the Jews of Iquitos” because they didn’t fit into the mold of what a Jew should look like:
“The notion of a Jew who looks like an Indian and lives in a poor house in a small city in the middle of the jungle is, at best, an exotic footnote to the official history of Peru’s Jewry as Lima sees it,” said Ariel Segal, a Venezuelan-born Israeli historian whose arrival here in the 1990’s to study the community also helped serve as a catalyst for the Iquitos Jews to organize.
And organize they did. They started observing Shabbat, conducted services in Hebrew “they learned from cassette tapes,” and started burying people in the old Jewish cemetery. As of today, more than 400 have formally converted to Judaism and many have moved to Israel.
What’s inspiring about this story is how for over a hundred years, living “on the jungle’s edge,” without rabbis or a synagogue, the Jews in the area clung to their Jewish identity. We are thrilled to see they have found a home in the Jewish community. While others are debating their status or legitimacy, we welcome them enthusiastically into our big tent. Why? Because we have a moral obligation to reach out and welcome in those on the periphery of the community, precisely what the tradition calls “strangers.” They stood with us at Sinai and we are prepared to stand with them today.
But it makes us wonder, how many more descendents of Jewish travelers and settlers are still out there, waiting for someone to rekindle the flame?
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