Amazonian Aliya

A community uproots from the Peruvian rainforest and finds a home in Israel.

AMAZONIAN ALIYA (photo credit: Miriam Alster)
(photo credit: Miriam Alster)
Carlos del Aguila Villacis, 19, running his hand over the top of his tapered hairstyle – cropped close on the sides, with a swath of longer hair on top – popular among young Israeli males of a certain age. “Ever since I was little, I used to play I was an Israeli soldier.”
While it may not seem like such a strange wish for many young Jewish boys, Del Aguila (“from the eagle” in Spanish) was doing most of his dreaming of the Israel Defense Forces in the Peruvian Amazon, in his hometown of Iquitos.
The largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, Iquitos is located at the junction of the Amazon, Nanay and Itaya rivers, accessible only by a five-day river voyage or a onehour plane ride from Lima. It is also home to a small, isolated Jewish community, descendants of Jewish traders from Europe and Morocco who settled in the region in the last century during the economic boom in the rubber wood industry. Some of the men arrived with their wives; others married local women.
While the older generation maintained a Jewish lifestyle, their descendants struggled to sustain Jewish tradition in such isolation.
But many did not forget their Jewish roots and were buried in the city’s Jewish cemetery when they died.
Together with his mother, Gloria Villacis, 51, and two siblings, Del Aguila was part of this small but united and active Jewish community, some of whose members claim Jewish heritage as direct descendants from a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent, and others who came to Judaism out of convictionafter learning about Jewish tradition.
Gloria, who recalls her paternal grandfather from Poland, tells The Jerusalem Report that although she was brought up within the Catholic faith, she felt something was missing and began, in 2005, exploring her Jewish roots as a divorced mother with three children. She spent seven years studying Judaism with Conservative rabbis from Chile and Argentina who came to prepare her family and other members of the community for conversions. Their conversion was completed two years ago.
“We had a Christian background but clearly there were lots of questions and I tried to find the answers,” Gloria’s older son, Oscar del Aquila Villaces, 29, a musician who was part of a music band in Iquitos, explains to The Report. When his mother began exploring Judaism, everything fell into place, he says.
According to the Jewish Agency, the conversion process of this third group of Amazonian Jews that was conducted by the Conservative Movement was completed two years ago, and their aliya to Israel was approved by the Interior Ministry. JewishAgency director of immigration and absorption Yehuda Sharf notes that the first members of the Iquitos community came to Israel in the 1990s within the framework of Law of Return, which also grants automatic citizenship to grandchildren of Jews. In the early 2000s, another group arrived in Israel after undergoing conversion through the Conservative Movement. With the help of the Conservative Movement, the Jewish community had moved closer to its religious roots, Sharf tells The Report, adding that their Jewish life revolved around Shabbat and holiday celebrations at the local synagogue.
Still, Conservative Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, charges the Jewish Agency with dragging its feet in the immigration of the Amazonian Jews out of racism. “There is no doubt in my mind that it took so long [to grant permission for aliya] because they are people of color,” Sacks asserts to The Report. “People from the former USSR barely have any ties to Judaism [and are given permission]. Their policy is clear and demonstrates racism to those whose skin is not white, like those from India and Ethiopia.”
In 2011, a third group of some 250 members of the community underwent conversion and half requested permission from the Jewish Agency to make aliya. Sharf says he expects some 150 Amazonian Jews from the community to arrive in the coming months. Most of them already have close relatives living in Israel.
The Villacis-del Aguila family is among a group of about 80 Peruvians from Iquitos who arrived in Israel in 2013, joining the several hundred member-strong Amazonian Peruvian Jewish community already here.
The majority reside in the central city of Ramle and others, like the Villacis family, live in Beersheba. Some have settled in Eilat, Afula, Holon, Ashkelon and smaller cities.
“I feel the land of Israel is my land,” says Gloria, whose mother’s family is native to the Amazon region. “I am also proud of that indigenous blood. I am a Jewish Peruvian Indian. Many people left Egypt with the Jews when they left Egypt. I am one of those souls who left with them and now I am on my land. I am recognizing where I come from, my roots.”
It is much easier being Jewish in Israel, she adds, with kosher food readily available and no one questioning her dietary practices. Her extended family in Iquitos did not understand why she suddenly stopped eating pork or shellfish, she says. She could have moved to the Peruvian capital of Lima, where there is also a small but established traditional Jewish community, but even there it is not easy to come by kosher food, she notes.
In Beersheba, they have already joined a nearby Conservative congregation headed by an Argentinian-born rabbi, she continues.
With the Negev city’s many Argentinian immigrants, she has always been able to find someone to help her with the language barrier if she gets stuck at the bank or supermarket, she says. Her nine-year-old daughter is already doing well in school and she and her two sons are studying Hebrew in an ulpan.
“We preferred to come here, to have a more complete Jewish life. This makes me happy,” Gloria says.
While the local media have been trumpeting the aliya of Jews from the “Amazonian jungles,” Yulliana Casique- Kohen, 35, who has lived in Israel for nine years, bristles at the jungle Indian image those headlines are designed to bring to mind.
“All the Israeli newspapers are writing about the ‘Amazonian Indians,’” Casique- Kohen asserts to The Report as she prepares salads for her birthday celebration in the Beersheba home that her family shares with her parents. “It’s true we lived in the jungle, but we lived in a city; we didn’t live in the wild.
“Peru is a mix of everything. We all have some [indigenous] blood. It doesn’t bother me if they call me indigenous, but all the articles write about ‘Amazonian Indians.’ In the Diaspora, they see you more as a Jew; and here, they see you as an Indian, an Ethiopian or a Russian,” she says.
A sister has also arrived for the birthday celebration from a moshav in the center of the country, where she lives with her Israeli-born husband and two children.
More friends and family from the Peruvian community will be arriving later in the day.
Family matriarch Elisabet Kohn- Contreras, 69, is the granddaughter of a Hungarian Jew who arrived in Iquitos after a decade-long sojourn in Lima; but her father never spoke of his Jewish roots out of fear of persecution, she says, as one of her grandchildren scampers through the living room to the outside patio. He did not allow them to be baptized or go to Christmas mass, she recalls. Her mother also had Portuguese Jewish roots.
“We never spoke about [Judaism]; but as a child, my father turned on his light and was with his big books,” Kohn-Contreras tells The Report. “The only thing I was able to save was his siddur, which I still have. There were days my father prayed with his book and we never understood him. He spoke in his language.”
Only after becoming involved in the Iquitos Jewish community was she able to put the pieces of the puzzle together and realize that her father was Jewish, says Kohn- Contreras, who served as treasurer for the community in Iquitos. Her Christian-born husband, Fred Casique-Vazquez, 73, was named secretary. Having studied Christian theology, he also helped to teach Judaism to newcomers to the Iquitos community, as well as other jungle cities such as Tarapoto, where he says there are some 200 families of Jewish descendants with last names such as Cohen, Ben-Simones and Messiyas. They studied Jewish life, the Torah, Shulchan Aruch and Israel.
The first class he instructed included 98 students who were tested for conversion in 2002, says Casique-Vazquez. All of them passed, he says proudly, consulting the data recorded in a notebook he has kept from his teaching days. After helping with the conversion of several hundred members of the community, he and his wife decided to join their children in Israel, he says.
Four small, painted ceramic plates from Iquitos are lined up next to their door, near an Israeli flag and a Hebrew prayer for travellers.
Several hundred immigrants from Amazonian Peru have settled successfully in Ramle, where the municipality has made it its mission to welcome and integrate the community. The municipality employs two native Spanish-speaking social workersto assist them, as well as other Spanishspeaking immigrants from Columbia, Argentina and elsewhere.
Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi says his city is ready to absorb any and all hardworking immigrants. “They are very welcome here; they have integrated very well into our city.
They are all employed and their children go to school,” Lavi declares to The Report.
Nevertheless, others see his eagerness to take on the new Jewish immigrants with more cynicism and believe that his motives, rather than being altruistically driven, derive from his desire to increase the Jewish population of the mixed Jewish-Arab city.
In Beersheba, veteran immigrant Sara Ben-Dayan Tello, 52, a dental hygienist who has been in Israel for 16 years, serves as an unofficial mother hen of sorts, welcoming the new arrivals from her community, some of whom she remembers from back home, where her family was among the leaders of the Jewish community. When she married, it was her father’s wish that she come to Israel and raise her family in the Jewish State, she says. It took some time, but she eventually made aliya with her husband and three young children.
“From the cradle, I was raised as a Jew,” Ben-Dayan tells The Report. “It was a very beautiful community, but we had to fight for our youth. We had to save our people.
“I wanted to raise my children with Jewish values. All the schools there are Catholic,” she adds, recalling how as a young girl she and her sister would sit alone in their empty classrooms, exempt from the religion lessons their classmates were attending.
As secretary of the community for 10 years, her father, along with other community members, began to seek out those Jews who had been lost to the community, some even unaware of their Jewish heritage, she says, sitting in her comfortable living room in Beersheba where she hosts many traditional Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations for the city’s Iquitos community.
At first, they held their Shabbat services in Iquitos in a house with occasional visiting rabbis from Argentina, she recalls; but it was an aging community and they decided to reach out to the third and fourth generations as well. According to the Law of Return, third-generation descendants can make aliya, but those of the fourth generation must first undergo conversion.
“We went door to door,” says Ben-Dayan, whose children are now grown and whose sister moved to Israel 26 years ago. She also has two brothers living in Dimona. “Interest spread like wildfire. Not only grandparents came, but many younger people too.”
While many of the last names in the community reveal Sephardi roots, others, such as Weizenberg and Abrahamovitz, attest to Ashkenazi origins, she says. While they were not always accepted by all the Lima Jewish community, in Israel all the Peruvians have become quite united, she adds, and the entire community gathers to celebrate together on Sukkot.
Miriam Olivera, 71, came to Israel eight years ago, following her son and grandson.
Though her grandparents were Jewish – one of her grandmother’s last names was Peres – and theoretically she did not have to undergo conversion, she asked to be allowed to do so so that she could learn more about Judaism.
She shares many Shabbat dinners at the Ben-Dayan Tello home.
“For us, Shabbat is part of our life; it is part of us,” she says. “My parents had a Torah.
We were never baptized. People are not Jewish because of their last name; he who practices Judaism is Jewish.”
Yaquelin Levy, a doctor who gives her age as “40 plus,” has been in Israel for 12 years. Her dark skin and hair and distinctive eyes point to her heritage; but both her paternal grandparents were practicing Jews from France, she says, and only when she arrived in Israel and did some genealogical research at the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv did she discover that her maternal grandfather, whose last name was Vidal, was also Jewish.
Her parents joined her in Israel some eight years ago; and today, most of her siblings are living in Ramle, she says. As a doctor, it hasn’t been easy because of her lack of mastery over Hebrew, so she has been working as a nurse for a patient with Alzheimer’s disease. “I have a house and work for me in Peru,” Levy, the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, says, noting, like others interviewed, that she did not come to Israel for financial reasons.
For some of the young people who came alone, it has not been always easy, since many of them have very little background with Hebrew, says Levy. For others, like her niece, who was drafted into the army soon after arriving, the integration has been easier thanks to the framework the army provides.
Danna Fernandez Ruiz, 56, arrived at the Beersheba absorption center with her two sons, Daniel Ramirez Fernandez, 26, and Freddy Ramirez Fernandez, 25, this fall.
Originally from the city of Pucallpa, they came to Judaism through a third son who became interested when he was introduced to it by a friend from Iquitos, He made aliya four years ago, but died last year of peritonitis. Her son is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel, says Fernandez Ruiz, who is studying Hebrew and working as a caretaker for an elderly Argentinian woman.
“Our conversion and becoming Jewish was a long process with studies and getting to know Judaism. It was a very personal process between me and God,” says Daniel.
“When we reached this level of conversion, it helped me as a person. I learned a lot through Judaism. We have to give account to God and know why we are here. Slowly I have begun to feel like I was born here; this is my land. Christianity tells you what to do but doesn’t look at the other side of the coin. It puts the fear in you… Judaism is very broad and helps me understand many things.”
Freddy says that already as a child something felt wrong to him about the colorful parades of saints through the city, with thousands of worshipers following the procession. “That was idolatry and in the eyes of God that is not good,” he says, sipping a cold drink in the tiny kitchen of their absorption center apartment.
Their welcome to Israel has been quite warm, largely due to the help and attention they have received from Ben-Dayan Tello, who helped them furnish their apartment, says Danna. Every Shabbat evening they go to pray at a Conservative synagogue, adds Freddy, or gather at Ben-Dayan Tello’s house. They are very grateful, says Freddy, for the open welcome the state has given them.
“Israel is a democratic society, so the Orthodox are not any more Jewish than we are,” says Ben-Dayan Tello. “We are one big mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi. Here, everyone is the same, with the same rights and the same problems.”
Still, having quickly learned about the rift between the Orthodox chief rabbinate and the other streams of Judaism, Oscar del Aguila worries about whether his Conservative conversion will be enough to allow him to have a sanctioned Jewish marriage ceremony in the Jewish state in which he has come to build his life.
“I want to have a Jewish family,” says Del Aguila. “If I have come here, I want to make this totally my country.”