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BRAZIL – HOME TO A FLOURISHING JEWISH COMMUNITY

By: Machla Abramovitz



Brazil, located within the northern part of South America, contains immense tropical rain forests and is home to the mighty Amazon River, the second largest river in the world, that snakes through Brazil’s massive territory. Summers are hot and humid, while winters are colder and drier. In São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city, with about 17 million people, the heat and cold can shift within the blink of an eye. The weather, like Brazil’s politics, keeps residents on their toes.

In contrast to the wildness of the tropical forests, the Higienópolis neighborhood of São Paulo is a quiet, tree-lined suburb. The neighborhood is predominantly residential and is dotted with pricey, multi-story apartment buildings. It is here that São Paulo’s Torah community lives, both Sephardic
and Ashkenazi. This is where they pray, raise their children,
and prosper.

Congregation Beit Yaacov,

Joseph Safra’s Dream

Within the larger Sephardic community, Congregação e Beneficiência Sefaradi Paulista Beit Yaacov resides. Comprised of 600 Torah-observant families from the Levant, the community is close-knit and is highly protective of their privacy. But open some doors, and you will find a vibrant, and influential community, one of Levant Jewry’s most closely guarded secrets.

The community’s accomplishments speak for themselves. Visitors walking along Veiga Filho Street, for instance, cannot help but admire a massive, architecturally striking building of unparalleled beauty – Congregation Beit Yaacov, a magnificent structure built in the neo-classical style. Inaugurated in 1995, it is the brainchild of Joseph Safra, one of the community’s most distinguished founders. He and his brother Edmond immigrated to Brazil in 1952 from Beirut, Lebanon. Their father, Jacob Elie Safra, joined them a year later. In 1955, Joseph founded Banco Safra, Brazil’s sixth largest private bank.

Visitors are stunned by the synagogue’s open, sunny interior, its outstanding woodwork, and its massive size. It can comfortably accommodate about 2,000 people. The sifrei Torah, some brought from Aleppo and Beirut, are housed behind the velvet-clad parochet. The community boasts 40 sifrei Torah, distributed among the community’s many synagogues. Each synagogue tells its own story of the Beit Yaacov society’s development.

1950s and ’60s Jewish Sephardic Immigrants Make Their Mark

During the 1950s, when Syrian-Lebanese Jews began arriving to São Paulo, Jews prayed in the ancient Abolição Synagogue, which was founded in 1929 by Jews from Turkey, Morocco, Greece, and Italy. Because maintaining their traditional nusach, prayers, and customs was so important to these new immigrants, they established their own minyanwithin this building where they prayed according to the tradition of Aram Soba. But with the growing numbers of Jews from Aleppo and Lebanon, including Jews from Rio de Janeiro who were moving into São Paulo, it was clear that the community needed a separate synagogue, as well as its own schools and programs. On Oct. 21, 1950, the nonprofit Congregação Sefardi Paulista Beit Yaacov was established, under the honorary presidency of Jacob Elie Safra and Rabbi Yitzhak Dayan, an Aleppo mohel.

The society’s first order of business was to build the Beit Yaacov Synagogue, located on Bela Cintra Street in another neighborhood. The synagogue was completed in 1964. The building itself was completely funded by the Safra family. The Cintra Street synagogue housed talmud Torahs, study rooms, and libraries. Meanwhile, Syrian-Lebanese Jews living in the Higienópolis neighborhood began attending Congregation Mekor Haim, which was founded in 1967 by Egyptian Jews who had immigrated to Brazil after the Suez War in 1956. Rabbi Moshe Dayan served as the congregation’s spiritual leader until his passing in 1982, when Rabbi Isaac Dichi took over. Later, Beit Yaacov built another synagogue in Guarujá, a summer resort town, which serves community members during the summer and on weekends.

In many regards, the Veiga Filho Street Congregation Beit Yaacov, under the religious authority of Rabbi Efraim Laniado, Rabbi Avraham Cohen, and Rabbi David Weitman, represents the heart of this well-established community. Not only are weddings, bar mitzvoth, and brit milahs held there regularly, it is also a House of Study. Renowned Torah scholars lecture there, as do secular scholars speaking on subjects of concern to the community and world Jewry.

A Testament to the Community’s
Jewish Commitment and Resilience

Moreover, Congregation Beit Yaacov is a testament to the community's profound commitment to its spiritual heritage, as well as to the community's resilience and ability to overcome political and economic challenges in Syria and Lebanon, and in their adoptive country of Brazil. Before the Jewish immigrants’ arrival in the 1950s, Brazil’s relationship with its Jews had been shaky. Jewish immigration had reached its peak between 1926 and 1942 when over 50,000 Jews entered from Eastern Europe, and Russia, Bessarabia, and Poland. As elsewhere in the world, the late 1930s saw a steep rise in anti-Semitism. Yiddish newspapers and Jewish organizations were shut down, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (the fabricated anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination) was published. By 1945, with the adoption of a more democratic constitution in Brazil, anti-Semitism decreased. In this regard, Syrian and Lebanese Jews entered a much more hospitable environment than did their Ashkenazi brothers. Still, there were challenges to overcome. Brazil remains a third-world country – the gap between rich and poor is stark, and people cannot depend on government assistance to ease their lives. Even today, Brazil is struggling to establish a fully functioning democracy.

But for São Paulo’s Jews, the 1950s until the 1970s was a golden age. Because of President Juscelino Kubitschek's "Plano de Metas" (National Development Plan) Brazil flourished economically. Jews from the Levant who gambled on making new lives for themselves and their families in this remote area of the world benefited financially. Within five years, Brazil became a renowned economic and industrial hub. Syrian Jews thrived in business and finance, especially in the fields of imports, textiles, construction, and manufacturing.

During this period, they established Talmud Torahs, as well as hesed organizations, women’s philanthropic committees, andyouth movements. Syrian-Lebanese Jews did not speak Portuguese, Brazil's primary language, but most spoke Arabic, French, Italian, Ladino, and English. French and Italian are Latin-based languages, and many picked up Portuguese quickly.

More Immigrants Spark Influx
of Rabbis and Teachers

A decade later, a second large wave of Jewish immigration from the Levant began to arrive. In 1975, with the start of the second Lebanese civil war, most Jews escaped a quickly collapsing Lebanon that was ripe with anti-Semitism. Many of these refugees moved to São Paulo, now the indisputable industrial center of Brazil. Joining them were Jews from South America, especially from Argentina and Chile, as well as from Israel.

As the community grew, rabbanimand teachers were imported from outside the country; Rabbi Jacob Garzon from Caracas, Venezuela was among those who came. By the mid-1990s, other renowned talmidei hachomim joined Beit Yaacov’s rabbinical council. These included Rabbi Y. David Weitman, Rabbi Chahoud Chreim, and Rabbis Haim and Avraham Cohen. Years later, Rabbi Isaac Shrem returned to Brazil from Israel to lead the Veiga Filho Synagogue. Under the direction of these outstanding rabbinic leaders, Torah flourished.

Looking towards the future, in 2000, the society built its second jewel. The Beit Yaacov School marked a significant accomplishment for the community and for Brazil. The school is housed in a
multi-building enterprise extending over 32,000 square meters of land. It offers the best secular and democratically based education possible, while strongly committed to halachah and Jewish values. As Brazil’s first Jewish trilingual institution, it teaches Portuguese, English, and Hebrew. The school also provides numerous
extra-curriculum activities such asscience classes, chess, sports, and production of the student newspaper.

The school accommodates all Jewish children wishing to attend. Rabbi Eliyahu Rosenfeld and his wife Rivky run the Chabad Jewish Center in Alto de Pinheiro, a suburb of São Paulo. Rabbi Rosenfeld notes that many young professionals, who had sent their children to top-tier, non-Jewish schools, now choose Beit Yaacov because of its outstanding level of education.

“Brazilian Jews are different from American Jews,” Rabbi Rosenfeld told Community Magazine. “No matter how non-observant they are, American Jews are affiliated Jewishly in some capacity or other. In Brazil, there are Jews with no Jewish affiliation whatsoever. That’s one of the reasons a religious school like Beit Yaacov that provides an excellent secular and religious education is so important.”

Sephardic Jews, he says, are the exception. “Sephardim have excellent teachers and rabbis. Parents set very good examples for their children,
as well.”

Happiness, Hesed, and a Strong Jewish Life Characterize the Community

Brazilian Jews have much of which to be proud. They are extremely generous. In 1992, the community founded the Israeli charity Ten Yad(Give a Hand), to fight hunger and social injustice. The charity distributes over 700 tons of food a year to thousands of people in need of help. As well, the Albert Einstein Jewish Hospital, one of South America’s leading hospitals, built from donations from Brazil’s renowned Jewish families, is a tribute to all of Brazil.

For many of São Paulo’s Jews, life is good. “Because of the tropical eather – it’s always sunny here – people are in a good mood,” Rabbi Rosenfeld notes. “Brazilians are happy people. They are tolerant and respectful of others. Communities get along well with one another.”

Still, economic disparities and hardships incite violence city-wide. Few people venture out alone at night, and armed guards protect schools and synagogues. Despite the violence, anti-Semitic incidents are rare. Brazil's Jews lead openly religious lives. Two large kosher supermarkets are filled with kosher products from Brazil, Canada, the U.S., and Israel. Kosher restaurants attract hordes of children, young people, and adults.

Brazil’s President
Jair Messias Bolsonaro and the Jews

So, what do Brazil’s Jews think of their new controversial President Jair Messias Bolsonaro? Bolsonaro, Brazil’s 38thpresident, is a member of the Conservative Social Liberal Party. Critics decry his far-right, populist views. Still, he has initiated more friendly relations between Israel and Brazil. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended Bolsonaro’s inauguration, and Bolsonaro reciprocated by visiting Israel. On his first day there, the Brazilian president tried pronouncing the words, "I loveIsrael," in Hebrew. He also wants to establish a "more balanced Brazilian foreign policy in the Middle East."

Previous Brazilian presidents were not as accommodating. President Dilma Rousseff, impeached due to corruption allegations, criticized Israel's confrontation with Hamas, calling Israel’s actions “disproportionate." President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the first Brazilian Head of State to visit Israel, remained critical of Israel throughout his presidency. He is now serving time in prison for corruption. In contrast, Bolsonaro personally awarded Israel’s ambassador to the country, Yossi Shelley, the National Order of the Southern Cross, Brazil’s highest honor for foreigners.

No question, the new president’s openly pro-Israel stance is much appreciated by Brazilian Jews who are very Zionistic. “America has politically influential pro-Israel Jews. Here, there are none. Bolsonaro is a very good friend to Israel, for no reason other than that he is an ohev Yisroel. He gets nothing back in return. Yoel Bamea, the Israel Consul General, recently told our young people that with Bolsanaro, it is like the days of the Mashiahas regards Israeli diplomacy in Brazil. Israel never saw anything like this before.”

But, is he good for Brazil? “Brazilian Jews don’t mix into politics,” Rabbi Rosenfeld explains. “We’ve lived through twelve years of one extreme
[left-wing politicians]. President Bolsanaro is trying to change things in Brazil. He has good intentions. Brazil’s Jews are willing to give hima chance.”