World Cup: Jews in Brazilian Amazon embrace World Cup festivities, proud of local community
(Attendants celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Daniel Petruccelli Israel at the Beth Yacov Rabi Meyr synagogue in Manaus, Brazil, last month. Photo: Anne Benchimol)
"You are invited to a Bar Mitzvah tomorrow at 6 in the morning," I was told by my host right after we came out of the Manaus stadium, Arena da Amazonia, watching Switzerland beating Honduras 3-0.
"But I don't really know the family", I replied.
"Does not matter, the whole Jewish community is invited", was the answer.
Yes, when the whole Jewish community is roughly 800 people, deep in the Amazon rainforest' largest town of two million residents, that makes it a small and close-knit community.
The Bar Mitzvah was held in honor of Daniel Petruccelli Israel, son of David and Karla, a traditional family whose grandparents were always active in the local Jewish community.
The simcha took place without a Rabbi.
"We do not have a Rabbi in our community. A few times during the year we bring one from Rio or São Paulo", Anne Benchimol, the former president of the Jewish community in Manaus and now its director of education, told me.
“Our Community brings a Rabbi as many times as we need one. Last year we had four visits. It is for individual meetings as well as lectures for the whole community. And every few years a Rabbi comes to help us on more specific religious work”.
As for the World Cup, the community got obviously involved.
“We prepared in our Synagogue a special Shabbat meal for those who were traveling from out of town”, says Benchimol. “There is a group called “Turismo Judaico” from Argentina, they were helping us with this plan to have all the Jewish travelers visiting Manaus to come to our Synagogue and spending the Kabalat Shabbat with us. It was a great success.”
“I have also organized in my house a party with friends and relatives who came to watch the games. Most of them were from the community, but it was not a Jews-only event”, adds Benchimol.
Manaus is located where the Negro River meets the Amazon River. Most Jews in the Amazon area arrived from Morocco during the rubber boom of the nineteenth century, according to “Eretz Amazônia”, a book written by Prof. Samuel Benchimol Z`L, Anne Benchimol's father in law.
The earliest on record came in 1810 from Fez, Tanger, Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakesh. In 1824 the first synagogue, Essel Avraham, was organized in Belém
. Between 1890 and 1910 some 1000 families arrived to the region and spread throughout the whole extension of the Amazon River. They were mostly Sephardic Jews who spoke Portuguese, Spanish and French.
(There still are from the old days 16 Jewish cemeteries dated from 1848 with Jewish tombs. These are the best historical witnesses of the presence of the Hebrew communities in the Amazon Region).
Story also has it that a rabbi, rabino Shalom Imanuel-Muyal was considered a holy man and admired even by non-Jews, as a healer and folk saint. He died of yellow fever in 1910, but till this very day is referred as "Santo Milagreiro", or "Santo Judeu".
“Rabbi Muyal is a saint for the Christians but not for the Jews”, Benchimol says. “He came to help the Jewish Community doing religious services and orientations. Now he is our ambassador to the Christian community of Manaus. We take care of his grave, we have a special day for him and we do the Kaddish for him every year”.
The first officially owned synagogue in Manaus was set up in 1925 and was called Beth Yaacov. The building where the Synagogue currently functions was inaugurated in 1962, and is now called Beth Yacov Rabi Meyr. It resulted from the merger of two existing synagogues of the time. “Before the merger in 1958 we rarely had Minyan”, explains Benchimol, “So the president of our Community talked to all members saying that together we would be much stronger, and he was right”.
According to Benchimol, "We now have 10 sepharim donated by members of our community, and one of them is estimated as being 400 years old."
In 1967 a new wave of Jewish immigration arrived into Manaus, after the formation of the Manaus Free Trade Zone. This time it was mainly Jews from the South of Brazil, who came to work and invest in the industrial and commercial sectors.
After more than 200 years since the arrival of the first Jews families, today's community is vibrant and active. It has recently launched a facebook page, Comitê Israelita do Amazonas.
“He have all the religious services for the Chagim and for Shabbat”, says Benchimol.
“Every year we light Chanukiot at a Shopping mall in Manaus.” “In fact our services start on Thursdays at 6 am. We have a small school with 80 students, 65 children and 15 adults. The youngsters group of Habonim Dror is also an active group. We also have a social club, where we meet for fish barbecues once a month.”
Benchimol makes sure to emphasize that the community celebrates Israeli events as well.
“Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Ha Shoa, Yom Hazicaron, we celebrate at the Synagogue or at our Club Hebraica. This year we had a singer from Israel to celebrate Yom Yerushalaym, Ori Harpaz from “Duo Parvarim”, it was a great show!!!”
As for the future, Benchimol says she hopes the community will grow. “We have a cemetery – this year we had to use it three times, not much -thank God. Per year we have some five new born, they have their Brith Mila with our local Moel who has been helping us for the last 43 years.”
Benchimol also hopes for more Israeli travelers in the area. “Every year we receive many backpackers from Israel during Pessach and Rosh Hashana. They are invited to our houses and to the community dinner. We never charge them… Once we had about 60 travelers!!!”.
And the World Cup? Benchimol thinks every team deserves to win. “In fact, the real result does not matter (even though I would prefer to watch Brazil in the finals), what really matters is the feeling of One Nation. All of us have the same goals, and the goals are to be happy in peace and to have fun on this magical moment and event!”
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