Against all odds, the spark of Judaism continues to burn brightly in the Amazon as two members of the Brazilian city of Porto Velho underwent a bris milah performed by a renowned Argentian mohel just days after Rosh Chodesh Adar.
Forty-one-year-old Isaac Portelo and 16-year-old Saatchel Benesby are two of just 16 Jewish residents of Porto Velho, which is the capital of the Brazilian state of Rondonia in the upper Amazon River basin and over five hundred miles from Manaus, home of the nearest Chabad center. According to Rabbi Arieh Raichman, the Chabad shliach to Manaus, it was on a visit to Porto Velho last May that he first discussed the idea of circumcision with the pair.
“When I arrived in Porto Velho and visited the local community, they were all very excited to greet me,” said Rabbi Raichman. “Some cried with emotion while others were ecstatic with joy as I was the first rabbi to visit them.”
While Portelo told Rabbi Raichman that he was eager to have a bris at the first possible opportunity, it wasn’t until 10 months later that Benesby decided he was ready to proceed as well.
“Saatchel had just spent Shabbos at a Shabbaton organized by Keren Nehor Menachem in Sao Paolo, where he met other Jewish youths from all around Brazil,” explained Rabbi Raichman. “I believe what touched him was that they gave him a bar mitzvah and celebrated this momentous event in his life. When they asked for his Jewish name, Saatchel said he didn’t have one but was going to have a brit milah with me.”
Both Portelo and Benesby flew to Manaus to meet with David Katche, an expert adult mohel who has performed over 11,000 brissos in South America and was in Manaus to perform a bris for any community members who wanted to be circumcised. Benesby received the name Moshe Chaim at his bris on February 27th and Portelo, who cancelled all his meeting in order for his bris to take place exactly one day later, was given the name Isaac Yoel. Both were performed at the Hospital Adriano Jorge, where director Dr. Raymison Monteiro gave the men access to one of the public hospital’s operating rooms at no charge.
“It was a great honor and inspiration to see two adults decide that there is something missing in their lives,” said Rabbi Raichman. “Every day, baruch Hashem, people take on new mitzvot and leave behind their old ways. However, this mitzvah has both a physical and spiritual imprint that lasts forever. Seeing them being circumcised, while being conscious, was an incredible demonstration of self sacrifice and it served as an encouragement for me and others to give more of ourselves in serving Hashem.”
Benesby’s mother accompanied him to Manaus for his bris and was inordinately proud of her son.
“It is an obligation for every Jewish male to be circumcised and I am very happy that my son did it. When he was born I went around to doctors in Porto Velho to have him circumcised but nobody wanted to do it. Now he did it and he did it with a mohel.”
Rabbi Raichman hopes to make future visits both to Porto Velho and other neighboring cities and says that there are currently almost 20 men in Manaus and four men in Porto Velho who have not yet had a bris. Portelo plans to learn Hebrew and would like to visit Israel. He continues to serve as a surrogate rabbi in his community, educating other Jews about Yiddishkeit and hosting Porto Velho’s Jews in his home on Friday night and on Jewish holidays. Benesby hopes to make a trip to Israel this summer along with his 26-year-old sister Suhellen and is very interested in learning more about his Jewish heritage.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients in addition to having written song lyrics and scripts for several full-scale productions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.