Brazilian Jewry: From Walled Cities to the Amazon

I recently made my first visit to Sao Paolo, Brazil, and was somewhat surprised to find that all the Jewish institutions had the security of Medieval castles. I had wanted to take some photographs of synagogues, but they are all behind walls. Hebraica, the phenomenal Jewish Community Center with something like 28,000 members, is a walled city.

My first thought was that the Jews must be worried about an attack similar to the terrorist bombings in neighboring Argentina, or that they are threatened by anti-Semitism since the Jewish population of Sao Paulo is about 75,000 out of a total population of 18 million. My hosts quickly explained that the Jews don’t feel any particular insecurity; the problem is the general lawlessness in the city. I soon realized that virtually every house in the city looks like an Israeli embassy with defenses ranging from a fence or wall to a compound with cameras, guards, and security booths.

Surely, I thought, Brazilians who are so afraid of criminals that they live behind walls would understand Israel’s need to build a fence to protect its citizens from terrorists. Wrong again, smart guy.

During a press conference, a reporter from one of the major Brazilian newspapers asked me about the fence. My first response was to ask where she lived and if she had a fence around her house. The reporter said yes she had a fence, but it was only to keep her dogs confined. I thought she was joking. I proceeded to explain the rationale behind the security fence, but realized it was not going to change her preconceived notion that it was unjust.

I had a similar experience over lunch with one of the top advisers to Brazil’s president. This was a Jew who had lived years ago in Israel, still has family in Israel, and yet found it easier to rationalize the need for Brazilians to have fences than the Israelis.

Within the walls, Brazilian Jewry faces the same problems that we do in America, principally assimilation and intermarriage. The community is struggling to find answers and one of my hosts asked me if I had a solution. I said that if I did, I’d be the smartest Jew on the planet.

Still, I found a vibrancy in the community. I was invited to Shabbat dinner at the home of one of the Chabad rabbis and was surprised to see platters of sushi. It turns out that despite being known for their churrascarias, where skewer after skewer of meat is delivered to your table, Brazilians are currently mad for raw fish, so much so, in fact, that I was told that one synagogue served sushi at the kiddush after Shabbat services and siphoned off so many worshipers from another shul that it too began to offer sushi.

Earlier I mentioned Hebraica. What an incredible place that is, teeming with Jewish life. It has theaters, swimming pools, a large gym, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a spa, valet parking, and multiple restaurants, including a sushi bar. They even have their own McDonald’s, though it serves only ice cream. On the night I spoke to an enthusiastic group of young people, an Israeli film festival was being held and various sporting activities continued.

Another highlight was to visit Rio de Janeiro. You’re probably thinking, it’s nice work if you can get it. Well, if it makes you feel any better, I was only there for one day and the weather was the worst some natives had ever seen. What made the visit wasn’t the scenery, but the energy at the Hillel. Despite the fact that it was Father’s Day in Brazil, the room for my lecture was packed. Afterward, the Hillel was full of young Jews who had come to socialize, play pool, go online, and, of course, eat sushi brought in for the occasion.

Jewish student apathy is a problem in Rio, as it is here, but thanks in large measure to the incredibly warm and dynamic director, Hillel is becoming a focal point for young Jews who want a connection to their heritage. It also doesn’t hurt that it may be the most beautiful Hillel location in the world.

And if you don’t believe that you really can find Jews everywhere, I learned that Jews even live in the Amazon. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit, but the editor of the Amazon Jewish newspaper came to Sao Paolo to interview me. It turns out one of the oldest Jewish communities in Brazil emigrated from Morocco to the Amazon nearly 200 years ago.

I also learned that Jews around the world really do agree on at least one subject, the anti-Israel bias of the media. Brazilian Jews were just as apoplectic about their media as Americans. Not surprisingly, their press is much worse, and they feel as helpless as we do to change it.

Brazilians also crave information and were thrilled to finally have someone come to their community who could make the case for Israel and teach them how to do it for themselves.

While a lot of focus has been placed, for good reason, on Europe, Latin America has been largely neglected by Jewish organizations interested in educating communities about Israel. We should remember that it was the votes of the South American bloc that were largely responsible for the adoption of the partition resolution and these nations can still play an important role in Jewish affairs.