These are the easily attainable facts about the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest covers about 2.587 million square miles. Spanning eight countries and one overseas territory in South America, it represents an area about twice the size of India or approximately 28 times the size of the United Kingdom. Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, lies about 900 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, is in northwest Brazil and is inaccessible by roads. Indeed, Manaus sits right in the middle of a jungle.
And then there are the amazing things that you will find in the Amazon—one of them being the Jewish community in Manaus. For over 10 years, Rabbi Arieh and Devorah Lea Raichman have been co-directors of the Chabad House in Manaus, serving Jewish Amazon, a unique Jewish community, which is also one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world.
“The community in Manaus has a long-standing tradition of more than 100 years, although the presence in the Amazon region has existed for more than 200 years,” said Rabbi Raichman. “The Jews came from Morocco then, with hopes of striking gold through the rubber industry. It was a chance to move on with a better life and more freedom.
“Young men traveled across the ocean and would often send support for their families back home. Since they worked in the rubber industry and the Amazon was an underdeveloped region, many small clusters of Jewish communities formed along the Amazon River. This is also a reason why, in Manaus, the capital, there was no chevra kadisha until the late 1940s. This explains how Rav Shalom Emmanuel Muyal, the first rabbi to step foot in the Amazon state, is buried in a non-Jewish cemetery.”
Today, the Jewish community in Manaus is small, around 100 families. Beit Chabad Manaus offers weekly classes for children and adults and different themed and chag activities. Rabbi Raichman is also currently working on several projects, including a calendar, a building campaign, fundraising, camp and more. The goal is to “build a shul, a place where the Jewish soul can grow and a home for the visitors to get a taste of the real Jewish Amazon,” he said.
When Rabbi Raichman, a native Texan who settled in Brooklyn after marriage, arrived in the Amazon, there were only three families that kept kosher. “Today there are 13 families that eat kosher, meaning buying kosher meat. All of them buy from Beit Chabad, but there are several people who come just to have a kosher challah or wine for Shabbat. So they and the tourists also buy,” said Rabbi Raichman.
The Beit Chabad Manaus store, in addition to basic kosher foods, also sells Glatt kosher chicken, meat, cheese, chalav Yisrael milk, wine, grape juice, challah, crackers and more. Meals can be ordered with advance notice.
Jewish visitors to Manaus will also have kosher food options available to them. “For those who keep kosher and Shabbat, Kosher Amazon covers those worries,” assured the rabbi. They organize ready-made meals and help deliver to hotels across the Amazon region. If you want the Shabbat experience and to have a taste of the community, Beit Chabad provides a warm reception and all Shabbat meals. There are eight hotels within walking distance, some just a few blocks away. The weather, bugs and distance might deter you, but it is an opportunity of a lifetime.
Kosher Amazon offers online ordering and is under the strict supervision of Beit Chabad Manaus. Fresh kosher fish is available and yes, piranha are kosher, as well as Matrisha, Pakoo, Pescada, Tambaqui, Tucunare, Pirarucu, Aruwanda, Curimata,
Araco, Jaraqui and Sardinha fish. Dairy products are all chalav Yisrael, all breads are pas Israel and all food is bishul Israel.
About accommodations for visitors, Rabbi Raichman said: “There is one hotel that serves as a bed and breakfast, called Chez le Rois, and it is easy for the keys and elevator issues. It is very near the Chabad house. They also have a great deal. There are great hotels near the Chabad house for around $70 a night. We also deliver meals to the people staying in the hotel as well as Shabbat packages, but the experience at the Chabad house is one of a kind, as you meet the people who grew up here or at least live the Amazon daily.
“To visit the gravesite of Rav Muyal and to learn more about the Jewish development then and now, Kosher Amazon in association with Beit Chabad Manaus arranges Jewish tours for visitors. A visit to the synagogues, cemeteries and Jewish perspective on the city are provided in a day tour,” said Rabbi Raichman. He also works together with certified tour guide Leonardo Mendes to arrange tours of Jewish Amazon. Mendes is a native of Manaus-Amazonas, Brazil.
Mendes has been working with tourism for 15 years and owns a small company, Amazon Amazing Tours, that in addition to Jewish tours, also arranges for day trips, jungle lodges, city tours and other types of activities designed to make you fall in love with the region. For Beit Chabad, Mendes provides Jewish tours that allow tourists to experience Jewish Amazon sites that include Synagogue Beit Yaacov, Beit Chabad, the Jewish Cemetery and the Amazon Opera House. Currently, the Jewish tour costs $100 per person, and for groups up to four people, $70 per person.
Taking a tour with Mendes, visitors get to experience the history of Jewish culture in the Amazon. Describing a tour, Mendes said, “Visiting the Beit Yaacov Synagogue, we will find a Torah that is more than 200 years old at the time of Moroccan immigration in the Amazon. We are going to visit the Jewish cemetery; we are going to visit the tomb of Rabbi Muyol, who until today is buried in the ‘goy’ cemetery, because after the creation of the Jewish cemetery, the kehilla wanted to bury the rabbi’s body in the Jewish cemetery, but as a matter of faith the Christians did not allow it. Then we visit the community Beit Chabad and the Amazonas Theater.”
In 1929, the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in the Amazon was formed and Beit Yaacov Synagogue was founded in 1962. Beit Yaacov, the current synagogue of the Jewish community of Manaus, is one of the largest congregations and most influential synagogues of Amazonian Jews in northern Brazil. Due to security reasons, for those wishing to participate in the religious services there, with a guide or without, the community must be given advance notice. There are also 16 Jewish cemeteries dating from 1848 serving as historical evidence of the presence of Jewish communities in the Amazon in the 19th century.
Regarding Chabad’s service to the Jewish community in Manaus, Rabbi Raichman said: “It is an honor to be helping such a community. I feel blessed, having grown up with easy access to a Jewish education and kosher food in Texas. Dedicating my life to helping others who did not have that experience feels like my obligation as a Jew. This is what the Rebbe suggested when motivating couples to move to other communities. Yes, we are far from friends, family and even bigger cities. While they may be concerned with which kosher ice cream to buy for Shabbat and with which exotic fruit, the Torah and our mission is what connects all Jews.”
For more information: Rabbi Rabino Arieh Raichman, Beit Chabad Manaus
Tel. +55 (92) 3307-6255
Email: [email protected]
Leonardo Mendes, Amazing Tours Agency: US:+1-949-485-5856, WhatsApp: +55-92 99186-7133, Rua Hidra Santa Luzia 53, Antiga Santa Luzia ao lado Gemattur Transporte, Manaus/Amazonas, https://www.manausjungletours.com/en/jewishinmanaus/,
Kosher Amazon: Kosher Amazon does arrange tours, however, they mainly focus on meals, but assist with tours and vacation packages.
They can be contacted at:
Susan R. Eisenstein is a longtime Jewish educator, passionate about creating special, innovative activities for her students. She is also passionate about writing about Jewish topics and about Israel. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education from Columbia University.