Belém, Brazil, is where the Amazon meets the Atlantic. It is also home to one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world. Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém

40 Years of Jewish Growth in Belém, Gateway to the Amazon

by Noa Amouyal –

Nestled in the city of Belém, Brazil—the gateway to the Amazon—is a community of Jews who, thanks to a dedicated Chabad emissary couple, have experienced a renaissance of Jewish life and practice over the past 40 years.

Currently, there are an estimated 1,000 Jews in Belém, one of the most isolated Jewish communities in the world, many of whom are of Moroccan descent.

Driven by the lucrative rubber trade in the 19th century, as well as the region’s tolerance for other religions, these “Amazonian Jews” settled near the basin of the iconic river. The small community of Moroccan expats arrived in Belém in the 1840s and brought with them their fierce adherence to traditions from back home which many have retained over the last 180-odd years.

“When my husband was offered to go back to Belém in 1984, the odds were stacked against us,” Sara Zagury said of her arrival in Belém with her husband, Rabbi Disraeli Zagury, who grew up in the small town. “The community wasn’t so interested in a Chabad presence at the time, but they didn’t know what they were missing.”

The community benefited from the fact that Zagury is a “Jewish Renaissance man” who was trained as a mohel, kosher butcher, poet and teacher. He quickly found ways to use his local expertise combined with his proficiency in a number of fields of Judaism to help elevate the spiritual and communal nature of Belém Jewry.

Upon arrival, the couple immediately began to build. Twenty days after touching down in Belém and before they had even found themselves a home, the Zagurys founded a school where they began teaching classes for a small group of children.

“It was a balagan,” Sara said, using the word for “mess” in Hebrew. “Nothing was in place. There was a lot of work to do.”

In those early days, Rabbi Zagury was famous for the white minibus that he used to shuttle kids from their public school, where they studied during the day, to the Chabad center’s school, where they would learn about Judaism.

Rabbi Zagury, the Jewish children of Belém and the famous white minibus. - Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém
Rabbi Zagury, the Jewish children of Belém and the famous white minibus. Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém

‘They Didn’t Know What Kosher Food Was’

There was no kosher food available in the remote city, so Sara had to make it all herself and the rabbi drove to the airport in the early hours of the morning to accept shipments of kosher meat that arrived from São Paulo–a three-and-a-half hour flight away. In the summer season, given the brutal heat of the Amazon, the meat would sometimes arrive spoiled, making for a meatless Shabbat that week.

“Many people here didn’t know what kosher food was; we had to show them,” Sara said of the challahs, cookies and cakes she offered to families on a regular basis.

As such, the Zagurys often went to the homes of people in the community to help them install a kosher kitchen. Sometimes repeat visits would be necessary after families learned that they didn’t always follow the rules correctly at first. Today, many members of the community keep kosher homes.

Despite all the logistical, environmental and societal obstacles in place, the Zagurys were steadfast in their commitment to fostering a Jewish community in this remote locale and remained determined in their mission.

“We came in with the mentality that nothing would scare us. That we would be up for anything,” Sara said.

However, she acknowledges that the logistical hurdles that the community needed to overcome would pale in comparison to the assimilation present in the community.

The Zagurys worked hard to address this issue as well, with Sara often playing matchmaker to members of the community looking to find their Jewish bashert (“soulmate”).

“At first, it was hard to figure out who in the community was actually Jewish,” she said. “It’s not easy to be Jewish. There’s antisemitism and our religion follows a set of oftentimes demanding rules. In a place like Belém that is so remote, it’s even harder,” she said.

Rabbi Zagury understands these concerns all too well having himself grown up in Belém in a traditional family where his grandfather and father were mohelim and his father a chazan (“cantor”).

When the time came for him to learn in a yeshivah, he made the long 3,000 kilometer trek to Petropolis, where he spent eight years studying. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Chaim Binyamini, the director of Yeshiva Colegial Machane Israel in Petrópolis, the young Zagury began to understand the responsibility he had to go back to Belém to ensure communities like the one he grew up in would be served.

In Petrópolis, the young rabbi met his wife, Sara, and the two of them quickly realized that their place was in Belém.

Now it’s common for students to travel to São Paulo, Israel and other places for yeshivah, camp or other Jewish enrichment activities. - Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém
Now it’s common for students to travel to São Paulo, Israel and other places for yeshivah, camp or other Jewish enrichment activities. Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém

‘There Were a Lot of Happy Tears’

The community hosted a lavish celebration last month in honor of the Zagurys’ efforts. The gala dinner had more than 250 attendees, which consisted of roughly 30% of the Jewish population of the entire state of Para, where Belém is located.

The evening was a joyous celebration where an orchestra played traditional Moroccan Jewish music, and other members of the community were recognized for their contributions.

During the celebration, a half-hour video was shown that powerfully encapsulated how the community has thrived over the course of 40 years. Little children wearing kippot, covering their eyes and reverently saying the Shema prayer, older ones singing “Adon Olam” in a classroom decorated with posters of the aleph-bet behind them and more footage of them at bar mitzvah celebrations were some of the highlights. Interspersed between these clips of nostalgia were testimonies from members of the community who expressed their gratitude to the Zagurys and Chabad for successfully infusing Yiddishkeit into their lives.

From grainy footage from the late 1980s to HD film taken on the smartphones of today, the movie showed the dramatic trajectory of the community.

“There were a lot of happy tears when we watched the video,” said Malca Zagury, who works at the Chabad center with her husband Shlomo, the eldest Zagury son. “This is a very warm, close-knit community where everyone is either related by blood or marriage. Everybody left the party feeling a sense of accomplishment, not only for my parents-in-law, but for us as a community. It was beautiful to see.”

The community hosted a lavish celebration last month in honor of the Zagurys’ efforts. - Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém
The community hosted a lavish celebration last month in honor of the Zagurys’ efforts. Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém

‘I Always Encourage Them to Go to Israel’

As the years marched on, and access to kosher food improved and the Internet made Jewish learning more accessible, the Zagurys believe that it’s easier now to adopt a Jewish lifestyle, even in Belém.

“The foundation of this community is due to my parents and the work they did. We have a community that went from being largely isolated to being in a more globalized world that has become more integrated,” Chana Zagury said. “For example, when I grew up, very few traveled outside of the city to study–it was much too expensive and our community back then was pretty insular and isolated. Now it’s common for students to travel to São Paulo, Israel and other places for yeshivah, camp or other Jewish enrichment activities.”

As a testament to their hard work, Sara Zagury says many in the community are observant, and some families have even chosen to make aliyah.

“I always encourage them to go to Israel because the ones who stay often assimilate, so I hope they leave,” she said, adding that two families did just that and moved to Israel after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks.

“When we had that emotional event, we weren’t only celebrating 40 years of Jewish life in Belém but the community’s future as well, regardless of where we end up,” Malca added.

In a place like Belém that is so remote, it can sometimes be hard to live a Jewish lifestyle. - Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém
In a place like Belém that is so remote, it can sometimes be hard to live a Jewish lifestyle. Photo: Beit Chabad of Belém

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