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Focus on Issues: Brazilian Rabbi Emphasizes Social Issues, Not Anti-semitism

After 25 years in Brazil, Rabbi Henry Sobel says he is finally getting his congregants to share in his belief that social action is “the essence of Yiddishkeit.”

In the past year or two, Sobel has introduced programs in synagogues and schools to involve the Jewish community in helping the poor.

Support for such programs among Sobel’s lay leaders has been spurred by the election last November of President Fernando Henrique Cardozo, a human rights activist.

Henrique was exiled during Brazil’s military dictatorship that ended in 1985. He most recently served as foreign minister.

“All of a sudden, social issues are no longer the agenda of the left from the perspective of the Jewish community, of the Jewish establishment. It has become fashionable to be socially conscious,” said Sobel in a recent interview.

Sobel was in New York to receive an honorary doctorate from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he was ordained in 1970.

The U.S.-born Sobel is senior rabbi at Congregacao Israelita Paulista in San Paulo. With 2,200 families, it is the largest congregation in Latin America. But the community’s 100,000 Jews constitute only a tiny percentage of the city’s 16 million inhabitants.

The Jewish community’s new participation in popular movements to combat hunger, poverty and discrimination has received wide publicity in the Brazilian press, Sobel said. This comes in the wake of the positive image created for Israel by its accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.

The Brazilian government has reported that at least 32 million of the country’s 150 million inhabitants live in abject poverty.

Sobel said that helping people without food to eat, clothes to wear or homes to live in is a Jewish priority, and a political priority. These goals are all also in the Jewish community’s self-interest.

“Our concern for the rights of the underprivileged masses generates respect for our rights as Jews,” said Sobel.

“I am more convinced than ever before that a parochial battle against anti- Semitism is a lost battle,” he said.

Sobel does not consider anti-Semitism a serious problem in Latin America. But the bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires last summer, which killed 99 people, led Sobel’s community to increase security “like never before.”

What indigenous anti-Semitism there is in Brazil, he said, “is not institutionalized.”

Unlike in the past, there has been “tremendous, authentic support from the federal and municipal authorities” for the Jewish community, he added.

Sobel downplays recent incidents of anti-Semitic graffiti daubed on campaign posters for a Jewish gubernatorial candidate in last year’s elections.

The candidate, Jaime Lerner, won election in the state of Parana. In February, a small number of posters of Adolf Hitler were posed in San Paulo, before being removed by the authorities.

“We have to be prepared to pay a price for the openness of society. Just as Jews have the liberty to express themselves as Jews, anti-Semites are free to express anti-Semitism.

“During the many, many year of military dictatorship, there were Jews in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America who let themselves mistakenly believe that the military establishment worked to the benefit of the Jews,” said Sobel.

“They believed that one contact or one telephone call to a given general could easily prevent a potential anti-Semitic incident or problem.

“This, of course, was pure illusion. When the masses are oppressed and repressed by dictators, they get angry. They need an outlet for their anger. And more often then not, they find an outlet by putting the blame on the Jews.

“History teaches us that Jews fare better in open, free societies. Democracy and religious go hand-in-hand.

“But the openness of society has made Jews more aware that they belong to a larger world. I think for the good of Jews, and for the good Jews in South America, Jews are becoming less parochial and more sensitive to the society in which they live,” said Sobel.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s Christian majority has received a taste of Judaism, as the country’s national television network presented its first-ever program on Passover.

Sobel said he planned in the program to emphasize the meaning of matzah as the bread of affliction, “and what to do with that insofar as the reality of our country is concerned.”

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