Just two months ago, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, the most diverse ecosystem in the world, was burning at a rapid pace with tens of thousands of wildfires spread across the region; the fires were so fierce that they were visible from space. While the world watched and wondered from afar what would happen to the Amazon, how it would affect the rest of the world, one small community watched and wondered from their windows. Would there be enough oxygen for us to breathe on in 5780? Or even worse, would a rainforest full of greenery turn into just pieces of burnt wood?
The Jewish community of Manaus, the capital of the resource-rich Brazilian state of Amazonas, is run by Chabad Rabbi Arieh and his wife, Rebbitzen Devorah Lea Raichman. The two have co-directed the Chabad House for nearly 10 years now and have watched it grow over that time. When they first arrived, there were only three families who kept kosher; today there are 14 who buy kosher meat and supplies from the store run out of the Chabad house. There are also enough men to make a daily minyan, women who require a mikvah, and several dozen Jewish children throughout Manaus, in addition to the Raichman’s own six.
According to Rabbi Raichman, “during summer and winter breaks, we hold a day camp for them, where they explore Judaism and have fun in a kosher environment.”
On Sundays, the children get together for learning and an activity; the Rabbi and Rebbetzin also do a lot of one-on-one tutoring, helping children learn Hebrew, learn about the holidays and anything else necessary to provide them with a Jewish education.
Rabbi Raichman said, “we take tremendous pride in watching the kids grow in their Judaism, and celebrate bar and bat mitzvah and other milestones. We recently had the pleasure of officiating at a wedding of a local young man who married a Jewish woman in the United States, and is now involved with Chabad in New York.”
But despite the continued growth of the Manaus community, there are still many challenges that make it difficult to live in general, and even more so, live a Jewish life.
The fires are one of the biggest challenges, as several days throughout the year when the community wakes up to the smoke from the fires with nowhere to hide. But, according to Rabbi Raichman, “thank G-d, after a few hours or a tropical rainstorm the smell goes away, and we are able to continue our work.”
Their work entails visiting the Jewish community members, providing Torah classes, prayer services, kosher food, giving attention to all those with questions about Judaism, and much more. Rabbi Raichman compares living in the Amazon with living on an island surrounded by a river and the rainforest. Therefore, providing children with a Jewish education, getting kosher food, keeping the laws of taharat hampishpacha, or family purity, are more difficult to heed than in other parts of the world.
Manaus’ isolation from other big cities with larger Jewish populations makes getting kosher food difficult and a timely process. According to Rabbi Raichman, “for the most part, it takes patience and foresight since everything needs to be shipped down the Amazon from Belem (the closest town with a Jewish community about two hours away) in refrigerated containers.”
The community has had to learn to live without many things most of us take for granted, like kosher milk. They also don’t have a local mikvah, so when women require one to fulfill the laws of taharat hamishpacha, they must travel either two hours to Belem, or take a four-hour plane ride to São Paulo. Neither is ideal and the community is currently raising funds to aid in the building of a local mikvah and community center to better serve the needs of all local Jewish families and even the tourists who visit throughout the year.
As we head towards Yom Kippur, the holiest day of our Jewish year and during these aseret yimei teshuva, we learn from the Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva Chazon Ovadia Yamim Noraim, that we should increase our involvement in tzedakah (charity), ma’asim tovim (good deeds) and learning Torah.
As the world continues to wonder about the long-term effects that the fires will have on the Amazon and its population from afar, these aseret yimei teshuva give us an excuse to play a part in the continued building of a community in a place that needs.