Peru, a South American country of 27 million, has fewer than
2,800 Jews. At its peak, the once-thriving Peruvian community
was 5,500 strong in 1970.
There was a wave of German and Russian immigrants. Peruvians
affectionately dubbed the exotic newcomers "Turcos," or
Turks. Some of the Jews of Peru are descendants of Polish and
Russian immigrants, or of Germans who fled the rise of
Nazism. A few claim descent from Portuguese "secret Jews" who
outlasted the Inquisition. Some came from North Africa.
Holocaust survivors and their descendants also are part of
In addition there are two unique groups. The B'nai Moshe,
sometimes referred to as "Inca Jews," are former Christians.
Rural farmers with no knowledge of Jewish custom and ritual,
they began to practice an eclectic form of Judaism in the
1950s, inspired, they said, by the Psalms.
They ate only fruits, vegetables and fish with scales. Unable
to attract the attention of the mainstream Jewish community,
they read from a homemade Torah scroll. They prayed wearing
homemade prayer shawls. They used the sea as a ritual bath,
and the men traveled to Lima to be circumcised.
For some 30 years, the Jewish mainstream ignored the Bnei
Moshe. Eventually they were "discovered" and examined by an
Israeli-led religious court. The stature of the members of
the court was not clear and neither was it clear how the
court overcame many technical and halachic questions. Because
of this, a beis din that was set up several years ago
by the Vaad Horabbonim Haolami Leinyonei Giyur founded by
HaRav Chaim Kreiswirth zt"l cancelled its planned trip to
Peru. The Vaad had been invited by an American Jewish
organization called Kulanu, with the approval of the Chief
Rabbi's office, to go to Peru.
In 1989 they were "converted," on condition they move
immediately to Israel. With the help of the Jewish Agency for
Israel, 140 of the Bnei Moshe settled in Elon Moreh, a
religious community in Judea.
Second and third waves also were "converted" and made
aliyah. Other groups are still waiting to make
aliyah, and according to the Israeli Law of Return
this must be preceded by a recognized conversion.
The claims of a second group, descendants of 19th-century
Moroccan Jewish adventurers who came to the Amazon jungle
during the rubber boom, are more problematic. This community
has passed through generations of intermarriage. They light
candles on Friday night and bury their dead in what they call
an "Israelite" cemetery, but their religious practices are
also influenced by Catholicism and supernaturalism.
This group lives in Iquitos, a town more than a thousand
miles from Peru's coastal cities, accessible only by plane or
river boat. They have little contact with the outside Jewish
world. But the 170-member community clings fiercely to a
Jewish identity. They make donations to Israeli institutions,
and several of their number have moved to Israel.
The B'nai Moshe and the "Amazon Jews" remain separated from
the established community, which is concentrated in Peru's
Community leader Elie Scialom believes its the B'nai Moshe's
Indian ancestry that keeps them isolated, "much the same way
Ethiopians caused concern when they arrived in Israel."
For example, 90 percent of Lima's 7.5 million inhabitants are
mestizos, people of mixed Indian and European heritage. But
few mestizos live in the neighborhoods where Jewish
professionals, bankers, and industrialists make their homes
behind walled compounds and in secure high-rise apartment
The tight security is necessary because of fear of crime and
violence, not antisemitism, Peruvian Jews say.
Lima's Jewish institutions are many and long-standing, among
them a cultural center, club, youth organizations and a
burial society. The Bikur Holim has 60 elderly residents and
is expanding. The community has several synagogues. The
Sephardic synagogue is in the now-decaying San Beatriz area,
where Jews once lived in Spanish-style villas with lush
A remnant of the old community helps Rabbi Abraham Benhamu
maintain a weekday minyan.
On weekends, activity centers on the Ashkenazi Union
Israelita, where the large, modern sanctuary is full on
Guests from the Iquitos community have been welcomed in Union
Israelita services in the past, but the group has not visited
in recent years.
As for the B'nai Moshe, they now have their own places of
Among Lima's Jews, Orthodox practice has declined: Only about
a dozen families keep the Sabbath strictly. The Jewish faith
brought to the jungle by the ancestors of the "Amazon Jews"
has all but disappeared.
Some in Lima grumble that the Iquitos only profess Judaism
when it helps obtain things such as free burial, immigration
rights to Israel or a chance to beguile tourists.