Rachel Souza Lima - From Brazil to Beer Sheva

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Less than a month before Rachel Souza Lima was scheduled to arrive in Israel on the final leg of her years-long journey to Judaism, war broke out with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. She had never been to Israel before and she was worried for her children, three of whom were coming too.

“But I knew Israel was well protected, with a great security system,” Rachel recalls. “Most of all, G-d protects us always. I knew we would be safe here.”

Rachel, 39, and three of her four children – 20-year-old Hillel, 14-year-old Binyamin and Sarah, 10 – arrived in September 2014. (24-year-old Stefani is married and didn’t come with the family.)

The 51-day Operation Protective Edge had ended a just a few days earlier. As life returned to normal, the Souza family’s life began anew…in so many ways.

Rachel grew up in Lucélia (San Pablo), Brazil in a family of Bnei Anousim – descendants of Jews who were forced into hiding or compelled to convert to Catholicism 500 years ago. Many escaped Europe for the new world on the ships of the great explorers. But the Inquisition followed and these Jews, like their brethren back in the old country, went underground.

Now with Shavei Israel’s help, Rachel and her children have returned to Judaism. Rachel studied at Machon Miriam, Shavei Israel’s Spanish, Italian and Portuguese-language conversion and return institute. Her oldest son studies in Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem’s Old City. Her younger two are still learning Hebrew.

But the biggest – and most unexpected – change for Rachel was her marriage on July 14 to Meir Yehuda Lima. Here are some pictures from the wedding.

Like Rachel, Meir is from a Bnei Anousim family in Brazil that recently discovered its Jewish roots. Meir, 51, worked in Brazil installing fire equipment. Now in Israel for five years, he is looking for a job in agriculture. After the wedding, the family moved to Beersheba where there are more opportunities to work the land.

Rachel and Meir’s wedding was a modest affair at the Tov Lehodot Hashem synagogue in Beersheba. Eighty people attended. “It was such a beautiful, religious ceremony,” Rachel says.

Rachel began to observe Shabbat back in Brazil even before her conversion. “We didn’t work, we made a special meal with challah, prayed and sang Jewish songs,” she says. “Whenever we could, we would eat kosher food. We did everything with enthusiasm, love and joy.”

Rachel says most of her friends and colleagues accepted that she would no longer work on Shabbat and holidays and that her children didn’t participate in non-Jewish festivals at school. “I didn’t experience any anti-Semitism as a result of our observance,” she says.

Israel, she says, “has exceeded my expectations. It’s so much better than I imagined!” Which is not surprising. “The news only showed Israel in conflict. But didn’t give up on my dream to move here.”

Rachel, Meir and the children are in the final stages of making aliyah now. “Israel is a wonderful country. To be here is very rewarding and immensely satisfying. We have everything we need here to full the mitzvot [commandments], she adds.

Rachel says her Hebrew is not so good (“I need to study more”) but after nearly two years in the country, her children are nearly fluent. “We are integrating gradually,” she says. “We have Israeli friends who have helped us a lot.”

The biggest help came from Shavei Israel, which supported Rachel and her family with monthly stipends for more than a year as they have navigated the complicated conversion and immigration process.

“Muchas gracias!” she says in Spanish. “Todah rabah” – Hebrew for thank you very much.

Thank you, Rachel, for your steadfastness, your determination to be a part of the Jewish people. And thank you to Shavei Israel’s supporters who make it possible for us to bring more Jews from the far corners of the world back to their heritage and to Israel. If you’d like to be a part of this story and help more Rachels return, please visit our website to make a donation today.

“We can make a real difference,” Rachel says, “by setting a good example, with lots of faith in G-d, so we will be a light to the nations with strength, courage and kindness. That’s the fulfillment of the commandments that were give to us by our G-d and by Moses of blessed memory.”

You can read more about Rachel here in English and in Spanish too.

Brian Blum, Shavei Israels