Special Interview the Situation of Brazilian Jewry
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Special Interview the Situation of Brazilian Jewry

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The survival of Brazil’s Jewish community depends on finding a “third way” between an establishment dedicated to preserving the status quo and young people who are deserting the community in reaction against this, according to Rabbi Henry I. Sobel, of Sao Paulo. The 31-year-old rabbi of Congregacao Israelita Paulista is dedicated to finding this third way and hopes other rabbis and Jewish leaders inside and outside of Brazil will join in the effort.

Sobel’s viewpoint can be seen in the theme of the lecture he is giving in several American cities as part of the United Jewish Appeal’s lecture series of young people speaking on global Jewish issues. His theme is “Zionism as the unity of the Jewish people by securing the center of our lives in Israel and by developing to the fullest Jewish survival and Jewish life outside of Israel.”

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the UJA’s national headquarters here, Sobel indicated that the problem of Jewish survival in Brazil stems not from anti-Semitism but from the well-being of the Jewish community. “Anti-Semitism is not part of the Brazilian tradition,” he stressed.

There are no barriers to Jews in any segment of Brazilian life, the rabbi stressed emphatically. He said Jews have risen to high levels in every sphere of Brazilian society and for the most part belong to the upper middle class. For this reason he said, they support the status quo, including the present military government in Brazil.


Sobel stressed that Brazil’s support of the United Nations General Assembly resolution equating Zionism with racism was “exclusively a pragmatic concern.” However, he noted that there are anti-Semites in Brazil and he placed in that category Brazilian Foreign Minister Azeredo da Silveira, who recently accused Brazilian Jews of being disloyal in criticizing Brazil’s stand on the anti-Zionist vote. Rabbi Sobel added that da Silveira could not have acted as he did without the support of President Ernesto Geisel.

However, Sobel stressed that most Brazilians opposed their government’s stand. He said he recently had a caller, a high-ranking Brazilian general, who wanted to convince him that. Vladimir Herzog, a prominent Brazilian Jewish Journalist who died last month while under detention at military headquarters, really did commit suicide as Brazilian military authorities claimed. Herzog’s death caused nationwide indignation across Brazil and Sobel spoke at an ecumenical memorial service in the Central Cathedral of Sao Paulo attended by 8000 persons.

Sobel said that when he asked the general about the UN resolution, the military man replied that “all of us are disappointed and shocked” by Brazil’s vote.

On the Friday night immediately following the UN vote, Sobel held a “Shabat of Affirmation” in his synagogue in which he told the 2000 people present that as “Jews who live in Brazil we have no moral right to remain silent.” He said he told the audience that Jews must protest to the government that “we will not accept to see the name of our country on a list of totalitarian dictatorships Arab countries and Communist countries to which Brazil is ideologically opposed.


Sobel said that on this and other occasions he has been told “not to rock the boat,” and “Rabbi, this is not America.” Sobel, who was born in Lisbon, Portugal, is an American citizen and was educated at Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Union College before coming to Sao Paulo in 1970.

Sobel said the Jewish leadership is made up of “good people” but people who have achieved a high status and therefore want to preserve the status quo and thus support the present government. He said they are motivated by what they consider the realities of the present situation. He noted that not one leader of a Jewish organization attended the memorial for Herzog and when he asked them for an explanation he was told it was a political meeting and thus not in their domain.

The rabbi said that for this reason many Jewish youth join leftist organizations, including the outlawed Communist Party. He noted that many young Jews have been imprisoned and tortured. He said these young Jews are lost to the Jewish people. At the same time, Sobel said there is a new generation of young Jews who want to find their identification as Jews. And it is these young Jews that must be reached, he stressed.


Sobel said that about half of Brazil’s estimated 160,000 Jews live in Sao Paulo which he said is rapidly becoming the economic center of Latin America. His congregation, which he said is the largest in South America with 3000 families belonging to it, is the only non-Orthodox congregation in Sao Paulo. Sobel explained that in South America the distinction is between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and although he was ordained as a Reform rabbi, he serves a congregation that is closer to Conservative practices as it is known in the U.S.

Sobel said that for the Brazilian Jewish community to survive, it needs help from Israel and world Jewry in the form of rabbis and Jewish professionals. He said they would find the opportunity for a rich career in Brazil. “Jewish life in Brazil is not degradation, it is not anti-Semitism,” he emphasized. “Jewish life in Brazil is courage…hope and…the possibility of fulfillment.”

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