RIO DE JANEIRO (May. 28)
To the visitor to the Jewish community of Brazil, sights point the landscape of his mind and experiences inspire him. Picture this moving scene aboard a Varig Brazilian jetliner approaching Rio de Janeiro: an elderly Brazilian Jew rises, dons his prayer shows and tefillin and recites the morning prayer. It is an appropriate introduction to Jewish life in this fast-growing, fifth largest nation in the world of about 120 million people, including about 160,000 Jews.
This is a dynamic Jewish community — not without its problems of assimilation and intermarriage — but one, which like Brazil itself, is hardly known by North Americans living an over night flight away, Yet there are about a half-dozen Jewish day schools in Rio attended by a substantial proportion of this city’s children. Frequently, Jewish boys and girls can be seen walking proudly to school with emblems in Hebrew announcing their “colegio.”
The city of Sao Paulo; which is one of the largest in the world with over eight million people, has about 75,000 Jews, several kosher restaurants, the huge Hebraica community center and club; more than a dozen synagogues and 60 Jewish organizations. In Sao Paulo there is even a Beit Chabad located on a street in which the municipality changed the name to read “Rua Chabad,” And Sao Paulo, too, has its Lubavitch “Mitzvah Tank ” just as does New York City and Brooklyn.
Jews have reached high positions in the life of this nation. The present mayor of Rio, Israel Klabin, is Jewish. Born in Brazil, he is well-liked, a businessman who is an intellectual, proud of his heritage, and who with dignity stood up to foreign Arab officials who had refused to meet with him. The result was that the press supported and acclaimed their mayor.
SOME OF THE DISTINGUISHED JEWS
One of the most outstanding Jews of Brazil is Adolpho Bloch, president of Blach Editores, the largest publishing and printing company in Brazil. Bloch likes to relate how his family — on their way to the U.S. — intended to stay here for only a year, and remained for nearly 60. And there is another tale, in a way symbolic of the stature of Jews here.
“When Bloch calls the President of the Republic,” it is said, “the President picks up the telephone” in his office in Brasilia, new capital of Brazil.
This city, “where the future is the present,” was hewn out of the forest in central Brazil in 1960 and today it has about a million people, including nearly 200 Jewish families. Bloch is proud of his Jewishness. He fights discrimination wherever it rears its ugly head. He often is host to outstanding world citizens, including Henry Kissinger, and the beautiful dining room in his headquarters frequently is the scene of exchanges of ideas on a governmental and journalistic level between the United States and Brazil.
Another distinguished Brazilian Jew is Hans Stern, president of H. Stem Jewelers, who come to Brazil with a penniless family fleeing from Nazi Germany, but built an international jewelry concern. Stem feels at home in Brazil. He recalls travelling, even by home back at times, to the for north, staying overnight in isolated towns, seeking precious stones which he received on consignment and later sold as a broker back in the cities.
JEWS ARE IN ALL WALKS OF LIFE
As Stern noted in an interview, there are Jews everywhere in this country, for Brazil is a 21st Century nation, larger than continental U.S. Jews move freely in all walks of life, in all professions, in culture as well as commerce, industry and government, in real estate and construction, tourism and the military.
They are middle-class, educated and professional, and many of their families have been here for centuries (the first Jew to land in the U.S. come from Brazil). They are fourth and fifth generation Jews of Sephardic descent who manage factories and hydro-electric dams to power industry in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas and located 1500 miles up the Amazon in the heart of the jungle.
In Salvador, the exotic capital of the State of Bahia, one of the continent’s oldest cities, there is also a synagogue and community center.
It is spectacular Rio de Janeiro, however, with 60,000 Jews, where one really finds a Jewish presence — in the synagogues, the clubs, the streets named after Herzl and Ben Gurion, and a school called “Escola Municipal Ana Frank.”
Many speak Hebrew here, as a large percentage of the Jews of Brazil have visited Israel. Their ties to Israel are strong and on Yom Hatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), for example, it was a moving sight to be at a holiday reception at the home of the Israel government official where hour after hour, all day long, the Jewish community greeted the Israeli representatives on the receiving line and one could hear the Hebrew words “Hog Sameach” being uttered with much pride.
(Tomorrow: Part 2)