Behind the Headlines the Jews of Brazil
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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Brazil

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The death of President-elect Tancredo Neves on April 21 has had a sweeping impact on the 120,000 Jews of Brazil, a land blessed with enormous physical resources, yet beset by serious economic and government problems.

The day after Neves was interred to the accompaniment of scenes of mass hysteria resulting in death and injury to many, the Jewish community of Rio de Janiero met at Temple A.R.I. to honor the memory of a leader it had held in high esteem as a friend and supporter. Similar tributes were held in Sao Paulo and in other cities.

A common theme of these observances was a sense of personal loss, for Neves had been regarded as a champion of Brazilian Jewry and sympathetic to Israel. Just one week prior to his election, he had conferred with Jewish officials and pledged that, as President, he would initiate a closer rapport between the government and its Jewish constituency, including warmer relations with Israel.


At present, there are only two Jews serving in the Federal Parliament, but in 1986, in the next general elections for state and municipal legislatures, several Jewish candidates will be put forward, according to Benne Milnitzky, head of the Confederation of Brazilian Jews.

A leading Sao Paulo lawyer who labors long and hard to strengthen the 60,000-member Jewish community here, plus the other 60,000 Jews in the rest of the country, Milnitzky deplores Brazilian Jewry’s lack of interest in politics, and is determined to weld them into a potent voting force to ensure the election of more Jews. He observed, in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, that in contrast to the poor showing of Jews in government positions, the Brazilians of Lebanese extraction are extremely well represented in Parliament and in other legislative bodies.


If Jews wield little political influence, they exert considerable power in economic matters, especially in thriving Sao Paulo, the heart of the nation and larger than New York City. Rabbi Henry Sobel of Temple Beth El, the largest synagogue in South America, spoke of Jews as belonging to the “economic aristocracy” of his city. He pointed to Leon Feffer, one of the richest men in the country as a model of responsible leadership in business circles and as “a Jew of the highest order.”

The owner of the largest pulp and paper complex in Brazil, and of vast forests in the interior, Feffer is a pioneer in Jewish education, having introduced courses in Hebrew and the Talmud in six universities, two of them Catholic.

He arrived in Sao Paulo from the Ukraine in 1921, and was president of the largest Jewish school for 24 years. Feffer is also the founder and president of the University Association for Judaic Culture. Now a vigorous 83, he speaks with boyish fervor of his life-long mission to bring to his adopted land the fruits of his Jewish heritage.

His rabbi, Henry Sobel, is considered “the voice” of the community. Young and handsome, with curly blond hair cascading down his neck, the U.S.-born rabbi speaks via radio and television, with more frequency than any other Jewish leader, articulating the views of Brazilian Jewry for the general public.

He is seen regularly on the commercially-sponsored “Mosaico” which has been on the air for 24 years. Its lively format includes news of Israel and local affairs, song and dance sequences and an “Ask the Rabbi” segment in which the photogenic Sobel responds to all manner of questions; and its audience is primarily non-Jewish.


The rabbi speaks often of “abertura,” or the opening up of progressive ideas and practices after 20 years of military rule, and of his own efforts to encourage the Jewish leadership to work more closely with powerful Catholic and Protestant forces, who also appear receptive to the new wave of liberalism sweeping Brazil. The interest of these churches in the Talmud and Judaism is extraordinary.

A Portuguese translation of the Mishnah, published in Brazil some years ago in an edition of 10,000 copies was sold out in short order, with 95 percent of the sales made to non-Jews. Courses in Hebrew and the Old Testament are regularly taught in Catholic colleges. Five out of six students taking a Hebrew course at the University of Rio presently, are not Jewish.

Alberto Dines, an outstanding writer and editor, on the contrary is not too sanguine about the future of the Jewish community. His view is that the quality of leadership has declined, together with a loss of idealism and that no younger men of stature have appeared who promise new directions for Brazilian Jewry. Dines has been a frequent contributor to “Shalom,” a monthly in Portuguese devoted to cultural affairs, which has a largely non-Jewish readership, including journalists and politicians.


The Jews of Sao Paulo are justifiably proud of their 30 synagogues, and of Hebraica, their vast and imposing club, containing indoor and outdoor pools, acres of tennis courts, theaters, restaurants, and a mammoth sports complex where more than 10,000 Jews gather on a Sunday. Their old-age home is one of the finest in the world, comprising eight buildings (some 10 stories high), in a country-club setting.

Yet, problems besetting Jewish communities the world over, are very much in evidence. Assimilation may affect more than 30,000 Jews. Anti-Semitism is ever present, but beneath the surface; it is not overt and certainly not official, for government leaders frequently attend Jewish observances.

Attendance in Jewish day schools is on the decline, with an enrollment of only 20 percent of Jewish youth in Sao Paulo, and less than 50 percent in Rio. Yiddish as a language and culture is espoused by a steadily diminishing band of zealots. The Yiddish Presse with David Marcus as its editor, used to be published weekly in Rio, but in recent years, with much less frequency.

The American Jewish visitor to this fascinating land will still have much to see and enjoy beside the sheer monumental beauty of a country larger than his own. He can be sure of a warm and unforgettable reception by his fellow Jews in Rio and Sao Paulo.

This observer, after two recent visits, can report on the basis of talks with many Brazilians representing varied facets of the community, that the Jews of Brazil are, in some respects, the victims of their material success. Concomitant with their enjoyment of the good life, may be the need to re-explore their Judaic faith and to discover a meaningful self-identity.

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