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Paraguay's Jewish community waking up
Latinamerica Press / November 2, 1995

By Larry Luxner

ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay -- It's 7 a.m. at the Pechugón processing plant just outside Asunción, as Rabbi Yehoshua Forma -- Paraguay's only ritual slaughterer -- wraps up his morning prayers. Then, as tradition demands, he takes out a stainless-steel knife, brings it up to his chin and splits a beard hair lengthwise to test the blade's sharpness.

Satisfied that the Israeli-made instrument is right for the job, Forma enters the exact time into an electronic notebook, which fits neatly in a small black briefcase that also contains other tools of the trade: a leather-bound prayer books, various sharpening blocks and a picture of the late Rebbe Menachem Schneerson.

Finally, Forma murmurs a blessing and, with the help of two Guaraní-speaking indigenous women, begins slaughtering chickens one at a time, pausing after every eighth bird to sharpen the blade. The whole koshering operation, a ritual he oversees once a month, is little more than a primitive assembly line made of plastic yellow crates and galvanized metal funnels. It's not pleasant work -- particularly as the morning sun climbs in the sky and the stench worsens -- but, like Forma says, somebody's got to do it.

"Young people here are not being brought up with enough Jewish conviction," complains the rabbi, ankle-deep in feathers. "In the past seven years, there have been only four or five Jewish marriages here, and 10 to 15 intermarriages. Some Paraguayan Jews have even become Jews for Jesus."

Such a development is unthinkable for Forma -- the son of Cuban immigrants in Miami -- who can barely bring himself to say the word "Jesus." Yet the very idea of a Chabad emissary from the United States koshering chickens in Paraguay would itself have been unthinkable as recently as 1989, the year this landlocked country began to emerge from 35 years of isolation and political repression under dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

Latest estimates put Paraguay's Jewish population at just over 1,000. Nearly all of them live in Asunción, the capital of this sparsely populated, California-sized agricultural nation that is sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil. The rest of Paraguay's remaining 4.7 million inhabitants are predominantly Catholic, with a smattering of Mennonites, Muslims and Mormons living in outlying areas.

Despite what would develop as Stroessner's unabashedly pro-Israel policies, Jews kept a low profile and rarely spoke out against the regime.

"In the house, we'd talk about the horrors and injustices, but we'd never talk in the street," says travel agent Clara de Cohenca who, growing up in the 1950s, was warned by her parents never to criticize the government openly and who, in turn, passed that lesson on to her own children.

Rabbi Forma arrived from New York just as the regime was on its last legs.

"When I started, we only had 10 people attending services," he says. "Three years later, we still had only 10 people. So I decided to open up a synagogue, and today, we get 65 people on Friday nights. People are coming back to Judaism."

In 1990, Forma and other community leaders celebrated Hanukkah for the first time with a public menorah-lighting ceremony in Asunción's Plaza de Independencia -- a tradition they have continued for the past five years. Forma has also started a newsletter and established a Chabad House where local Jews can find, among other things, spiritual guidance, kosher wine imported from Brazil and, of course, fresh kosher chicken. There's also a backyard mikveh for Orthodox Jewish women, though at the moment, its only visitors are Forma's wife and one other religious woman.

Jacobo Cohenca agrees, recalling that "six years ago, this was a spiritual desert. The rabbi is an excellent example of how to live a Jewish life. He is like a light."

But not all is harmonious in the 1,000-strong Jewish community. Despite the rabbi's increasing popularity with some members of the community, only a fraction opt for his services. The majority of Jews choose the liberal atmosphere of the Unión Hebráica del Paraguay, which up until five or six years ago, served ham-and-cheese sandwiches in its cafeteria.

While the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, mainly immigrants from Turkey and Greece, generally get along well with each other, worshippers of La Hebráica and the Bet Chabad do not. According to Forma, members of La Hebráica once once called him a "terrorist" on a radio call-in program for his angry criticism of Jews who don't keep the faith.

"We have absolutely nothing to do with the Lubavitch," said the 51-year-old Abraham, an active member of La Hebráica. "It's not our philosophy."

In many ways isolated from the rest of world Jewry -- and occasionally, each other -- the community here is also isolated from most other Paraguayans.

Almost without exception, the Jews are well-off in a country whose per-capita income hovers around $800, making it one of the poorest nations in South America. And few Jews speak Guaraní -- the country's indigenous language which shares official status with Spanish -- though its teaching is now obligatory at all Paraguayan schools including the Colegio Estado de Israel, where most Jewish children get their primary education.

Israel's ambassador to Paraguay, Yoav Bar-On, who arrived in March 1995, says that "obviously, it's a very small community, almost unknown to the outside world. There's no future for a cultural or religious life here. What the rabbi is doing is important, but it's only a small step. The Lubavitch can't change things in one or two days."

Clara de Cohenca tends to agree. "In 20 years, the Jewish community will disappear," she says matter-of-factly. "We have two options -- blend in with the way the majority thinks, or assimilate into our own reality. If we want to conserve our Jewish identity, we'll have to leave Paraguay."

Not everyone, however, concurs with her gloomy assessment. Abraham, the B'nai B'rith president, says Jews have a genuine stake in Paraguay's future.

"It's a difficult question. It's what we're always arguing about," he said. "But we see our continued presence as our mission, and we think the school is really the instrument to keep the community going."

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