Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Teves 5763 - January 1, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Who is a Jew in Peru?
by Yated Neeman Staff

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 the mix.

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 capital, Lima.

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 buildings.

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 gardens.

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 Shabbat mornings.

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 worship.

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.


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