Landlocked between Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia, Paraguay has long been considered the continent’s “empty quarter,” nondescript and unnoticed even by its closest neighbors. With a population of only 5 million, a long history of political abuse and corruption, and little to capitalize on, this is not a particularly attractive destination.
But ask any of the 22 children who recently rounded off a (winter) session at Camp Gan Israel, in Asuncion, Paraguay, and they’ll tell you they were swept up in the vortex of an experience with enough good energy and enthusiasm to carry them through to next year.
“Twenty years ago, as intermarriage rates climbed to 75%, Jewish agencies predicted that Paraguay’s Jewish community would cease to exist within five years,” says Venezuelan-born Rabbi Yehoshua Forma, Chabad representative to the country since 1988. But Rabbi Forma and his wife Ricah, a native Brazilian, worked tirelessly to pull a faltering, forgotten community up by the bootstraps, and breathe new life into Paraguay’s 300 Jewish families.
Not surprisingly, their first project was the Gan Israel Day Camp, which drew a total of eight campers. “It was the children who were most at risk of being lost to Judaism,” explains Rabbi Forma, “so we decided to place a premium on catering to them.” Offering a full array of exciting trips and activities, hot lunches and bus service, the Gan Israel camp took off well with winter and summer sessions that ran two weeks each.
Brenda Cegla was a camper during Gan Israel’s pioneering year in Paraguay. She remembers the catchy tunes and creative crafts, but mostly she recalls “a very happy environment with a real positive energy,” that kept her coming back for years.
But success would come to Chabad in Paraguay with the Formas swimming upstream all the way. Having lived so far removed from any traditional Jewish presence for so long, many felt uneasy about the Chabad presence in town. “People had all kinds of misconceptions about Chabad, and about ultra-orthodoxy,” says Rabbi Forma. “They thought we had come as missionaries, to try to make them look like us, act like us, and to strip them of their own individuality.”
On a personal level, life in Paraguay presented enormous challenges for the Forma family. Kosher food was hard, if not impossible to come by, and the Formas subsisted on a diet of eggplants, tomatoes, and rice. Eight months later the family would taste its first chicken here, slaughtered by Rabbi Forma himself. And procuring milk meant visiting a nearby farm every two weeks, to milk the cows. Talk about third-world countries.
But the young couple forged ahead, resolutely determined to make traditional Jewish life a viable reality in Paraguay. A rented facility that would serve as the Chabad Center housed the community’s only mikvah, a traditional synagogue, Chabad’s preschool, and community programs and events.
Two years ago, shortly before the major economic crisis hit neighboring Argentina, Chabad purchased a 1,200 sq meter plot of land for a permanent Chabad facility. But the crises in Argentina and Brazil have taken their toll on Paraguay, dragging the small country down along with them. With none of the international attention to garner support for its failing economy, the Jewish community in Paraguay has been struggling to stay afloat.
But the Formas are hopeful that things will pick up again, when they will resume their plans for a new Chabad Center. In the meantime, Camp Gan Israel closed another successful season, Chabad’s Friday night minyan draws nearly 100 people weekly, and some 20-40 people come by on Saturday for the morning minyan. More than 30 students meet for weekly learning sessions at a Chabad student club, and nine children are enrolled in the Chabad preschool. And in the past year, Chabad officiated at four Jewish marriages.
That’s a significant number for this tiny community.