Peruvian Jews celebrate the Sabbath at a synagogue in Iquitos, Peru, in June 2009
Peruvian Jews celebrating the Sabbath at a synagogue in Iquitos, Peru, in June 2009 Photo by NYTimes
Text size

Mixed-race Peruvian converts to Judaism, also known as "Jews from the Amazons," made aliyah to Israel last month, as part of a renewed immigration in which a total of 150 are expected to arrive by 2014.

The group of 18 from the small Jewish community in Iquitos, on the banks of the Amazon in Peru, arrived in Israel on a KLM flight and settled in Ramle last month.

The Jewish Agency will be assisting the aliyah process for all 150 new immigrants, who converted to Judaism with the Conservative Movement and whose immigration has been approved by the Interior Ministry.

Director of Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations Unit of The Jewish Agency Yehuda Sharf told Haaretz on Sunday that "since the end of the 1990s, hundreds of the Iquitos community made aliyah and integrated successfully in Israel. Most of them successfully assimilated in Ramle and that is why most of the new immigrants are moving there."

There is a total of 284 Peruvians from Iquitos - the largest city in the rainforest located in northern Peru - who converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbinical court in August 2011, after they engaged in Jewish studies for five years. They are the descendants of Moroccan Jews who arrived in the Amazon in the 19th century seeking employment in the rubber industry, and who married and had children with local women.

Under current immigration procedures, individuals who are not born Jewish are expected to spend nine months as active members of their local Jewish communities after they have completed the conversion process – regardless of what type of conversion they have undergone – before they move to Israel. During this time, their applications are reviewed by the Interior Ministry. The ministry, which does not have its own emissaries abroad, typically relies on recommendations from the Jewish Agency about the validity of conversions performed abroad.

The Jewish Agency last year notified the Interior Ministry that it had determined the conversions performed for the group of 284 Peruvians fulfilled all the necessary criteria to make them eligible for immigrating to Israel under the Law of Return. Based on this recommendation, they should have been able to immigrate to Israel in May 2012.

But ministry officials initially insisted, despite a Jewish Agency legal ruling to the contrary, that bringing this large a group of converts to Israel required a special cabinet. Both Jewish Agency officials and Conservative movement leaders in Israel were incensed by the Interior Ministry’s refusal to grant the Peruvians permission to immigrate.

After withholding approval for months, the Interior Ministry eventually accepted the legal ruling that no cabinet decision was required in order to bring the group over.

Hundreds of members of the Iquitos community already immigrated to Israel in two separate waves – one in 2001 and the other in 2005.