FJMC Goes to Peru

For DR. GARY and LEAH SMITH, the highlight of the joint FJMC/Masorti Olami trip to Peru was Shabbat in a very small town

by Dr. Gary and Leah Smith

The Iquito congregation presents gifts to the group after Havdalah.

When we decided to participate in a group trip to explore historical and Jewish Peru, sponsored by Masorti Olami and the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, little did we know what was in store for us. Led by Michael Abadi, FJMC’s South American liaison, and FJMC Executive Director Rabbi Charles Simon, it turned out to be a wonderful educational, emotional and spiritual journey.

The highlight of the trip was visiting Iquitos, a poor city located near the mouth of the Amazon River with aging buildings and people who have had to adapt to a difficult way of life. (There are only two ways into and out of Iquitos, by water or by air.)

On our first Shabbat in Peru we met the president of the Jewish community of Iquitos and his wife, Jorge and Pakita Abramovich Moreno, who took us to an ancient building with no writing on it. Frankly, it was the last place we expected would be a synagogue. The deteriorating white brick walls were decorated with Judaic art surrounded by fans. The bimah was a six-foot table with a tablecloth and the Torah sat to the side in a small wooden box. As we entered the sanctuary, something extraordinary occurred: the congregation clapped hands and every one of the almost 200 Jews in Iquitos warmly embraced us. Even though most of us did not speak Spanish our eyes and our hearts met with a welcome as if we knew each other for many years.

The service was simple but very interesting. The custom in the Masorti congregations in Peru is for the whole congregation to attend services on Friday evening. People interacted and sat with each other. The members of our group who did speak Spanish made it a little easier for the rest of us. Michael Abadi, our primary translator, filled in the blanks. We started the service by wrapping our arms around each other and singing Shalom Aleichem and dancing. The young children hugged us. Later that evening we enjoyed a great meal with local delicacies like paiche (fresh water fish) and chonta salad (made with hearts of palm) in the president’s house.

The members of the Iquitos congregation want to be acknowledged as Conservative/ Masorti Jews. There is no permanent rabbi, but one periodically flies in from Argentina to assist in education and building lay leadership. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein from Lima also provides religious support. Many of the children leave for Israel once they reach 18, as they believe it is the land of milk and honey.

On Saturday morning there were fewer people at the synagogue and noticeably fewer women. Services were led by Rabbi Simon. The surreal setting, with animals making noises in the background, created an almost biblical ambience. We completed services in a traditional manner, enjoyed some food and made plans to come back for Havdalah.

By Saturday night, many of us had become very attached to the congregants (thanks to our sporadic Spanish and their halting English). Havdalah was an emotional half-hour service with many participants from the congregation, and more food. We sang, danced, hugged, and took pictures. Before leaving, as we discussed what we wanted to do for the community, members approached each of us with handmade gifts ranging from woodcarvings to yarmulkes. By that time, we certainly appreciated how much it meant to be there and how much a part of each other’s lives we had become. It truly represented the spiritual meaning of tikkun olam.

Later we visited Cusco in the Andes to see one of the modern wonders of the world – Machu Picchu – and Lima, where we toured and celebrated a second Shabbat. However, the highlight for all of us was our time in that little synagogue in Iquitos!

Gary and Leah Smith are members of Adath Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio. The trip participants decided to honor Michael Abadi for his knowledgeable and compassionate leadership by creating a scholarship fund for Latin American Jewry in his name.