When I first learned of the Jews of Iquitos, I had to pull out a map. I had never heard of Iquitos, Peru, and I certainly found it hard to believe that a Jewish community could have survived, isolated, deep in the Amazon Jungle, for over 100 years. Reality truly is stranger than fiction.
Fast forward one year, in 2012, and I found myself in Ramle, Israel, a development town not far from Tel Aviv, meeting with members of the Iquitos Jewish community who chose to carve out a new future in Israel. Like many immigrants, they came for their children. So their children could receive education, so their daughters could grow up in a land that protected them, and so they and their children could express themselves freely as Jews without persecution. I remember how powerful it was to meet these people, fellow Jews, and communicate with them in Hebrew. Sure, neither of us had mastered the language, but the simple ability to say “Hello, how are you” in our ancient Jewish tongue truly moved me. We were so different and yet shared so much.
However, my most meaningful moment with the Iquitos occurred on a recent visit. The Iquitos need our help. Their story is defined by struggle and right now they struggle to adapt to their new home in Israel. Their children, particularly, are struggling to assimilate with their Israeli peers. In 2012, I told them I would take their story back with me and share with those in my home Jewish community.
I had the privilege to be invited by the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara to share with them the story of the Iquitos, and a soccer program in need of funding that would enable the Iquitos children to play soccer with their Israeli peers and, via sport, bridge their cultural differences and become friends, become equal Israelis, and successfully assimilate. The Women’s Division adopted this program and raised the money needed so that this program could become a reality. I was sitting with the Iquitos in Ramle when I received the email saying that the money had been raised. A mother hugged me and said “Thank you, Santa Barbara”. And so I say thank you to the Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation and to the Santa Barbara Jewish community for what you did to improve the lives of a Jewish community so different from ours, but with whom we share so much.
Board Member, Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara