I’m your rabbi (and they won’t get me out of here)

The only Jew in the jungle fights to keep Chabad house open


By Keren David, April 30, 2009
Follow The JC on Twitter
A Google view of Rurrenabaque

A Google view of Rurrenabaque

On the map it is a pinprick in the Bolivian rainforest, a tiny township where the nearest cash machine is a 20-hour bus ride away.

Many of the 15,000 residents are indigenous people too poor to afford a boat to cross the Beni river. From one tribe, the Tacana, comes the town’s name, Rurrenabaque, meaning lagoon of ducks.

The local airport is often reduced to a mudbath, electricity comes from an unreliable generator and, until recently, the only vehicular access was via the aptly-named Death Road.

It is, in short, an extremely unlikely location for a rumpus involving a rabbi, the police and wild rumours of drug-taking and assassination attempts. Not to mention accusations of business rivalry and institutional antisemitism.

Rabbi Aharon Freiman, 22, and his wife Sarah, came to Rurrenabaque from Jerusalem two months ago, determined to bring Judaism to the many Israeli backpackers who use the town as a base for treks to the jungle and pampas.

Last week the Freimans were raided by the Bolivian police who searched the house, arrested several Israelis and ordered the young rabbi to close the centre. “I thought they were going to take me to jail,” he said.

Various theories have been put forward for the raids. They include dirty work from local restaurateurs, angry at being undercut by the Freimans; drug-dealing by Israelis and even rumours of involvement in a recent plot to assassinate the Bolivian president, the former cocoa farmer Evo Morales.

Rabbi Freiman blames the Bolivian government. “They are very anti-Jewish,” he said. “They said that my papers were no good, but my papers are good. They believe the Israelis all take drugs but the police are liars, they did not find drugs.”

No one from the Bolivian Embassy in London was available to comment on the claims.

Rabbi Aharon Freiman

Rabbi Aharon Freiman

The rabbi has a lawyer and intends to fight to reopen his house to Israeli visitors. He is also concerned about the Israelis who were arrested during the raids and are still held in police custody.

“We will do everything we can, but we need lawyers and money. A lot of Israelis come here and they need kosher food and Shabbat services.”

Rabbi Freiman was born in Israel and brought up in the Lubavitch movement and firmly believes that the last Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the messiah — a controversial belief which many Lubavitchers do not share.

Although he calls his home Chabad House, it is not officially linked to the worldwide Lubavitch movement, nor listed on its website. Rabbi Freiman diplomatically refuses to discuss this. “I am not political,” he says.

Even before the raid, life in Rurrenabaque was not easy for the Freimans. “You can’t just go to the store to buy food here,” the rabbi explained.

“We have to make everything ourselves. We have to make our own bread, everything. The only thing we can buy from the store is Coca-Cola.”

A schochet came last month to provide the couple with kosher meat, but with frequent power cuts, it is hard to rely on a freezer.

“We are often without electricity, and no computer, no internet — it is hard, very primitive,” he said.

But he likes the pace of life. “The Spanish word is tranquilo. Nobody goes fast here, nobody rushes. If you need something, you go to the person, they say they will be there the next day but they mean next week, next month.”

Most of his Israeli guests are heading for treks in the jungle, and Rabbi Freiman would dearly love to join them to enjoy the spectacular views and diverse wildlife. But he says he is too busy attending to the spiritual needs of Jewish backpackers.

Life can be lonely, admits the Rabbi of Rurrenabaque. “After all, I am the only Orthodox Jew in the village.”

    Last updated: 10:18am, April 30 2009