Brazil´s Jews struggle
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Brazil´s Jews struggle

Brazilian Jews perform an Israeli folk dance in a Sao Paulo mall.  (Larry Luxner)

Brazilian Jews perform an Israeli folk dance in a Sao Paulo mall.

(Larry Luxner)

SAO PAULO, Brazil (JTA) — In the working-class Bom Retiro neighborhood of South America´s largest city, an inconspicuous sign in Hebrew and Portuguese stands out from the abundance of Korean-owned shops along Rua Ribeiro de Lima. The sign welcomes visitors to the "Instituicao Beneficente Israelita Ten Yad," a charity that since 1992 has offered hot meals and spiritual hope to thousands of impoverished Brazilian Jews. Isaac Guinsberg, 69, is a regular at Ten Yad, having lunched there nearly every day for the last 10 years. "I used to work for the chevra kadisha," or burial society, he said. "I received quite a good salary and didn´t want to come here, but it wasn´t enough to live on." Guinsberg, a Sao Paulo native, is divorced and has no contact with his children. About half of his monthly government pension of $70 goes toward rent. "I feel good here," Guinsberg said. "If it weren´t for Ten Yad I´d be in a very bad situation, because I have no money to buy food." Ten Yad is one of several Jewish charities fighting hunger in Brazil, a vast nation of 175 million people. The devaluation of Brazil´s currency, the real, in January 1999, wiped out the savings of many middle-class Jewish families. For the first time in their lives, many were forced to turn to charity to survive. "We always knew that most of Brazil´s Jews were middle class, but this last crisis was the most difficult for the community because the standard of living dropped dramatically," said Jayme Blay, president of the Federacao Israelita do Estado de Sao Paulo, an umbrella group of 55 institutions serving the 60,000 Jews of Sao Paulo state. "This included a lot of Jewish entrepreneurs with little shops and businesses, and even professionals like lawyers, doctors and engineers," Blay said. "Our welfare institutions saw an enormous increase in their workload." Blay estimated that 10 to 15 percent of Sao Paulo´s Jews are receiving some kind of assistance. "When the crisis arrived, many Brazilian Jews didn´t have enough money to live through the crisis and wait until better times," he said. "The ones who lost their income cannot benefit at all from the improving situation, because right now they have to pay their debts, solve their problems, rebuild their lives and look for other jobs." Brazil´s new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known here as "Lula," has made the struggle against hunger and poverty one of his major priorities. Elected last year as the first leftist president in a generation, Lula calls his poverty initiative "Fome Zero," Portuguese for "zero hunger." Though Brazil´s economic situation is gradually improving, it cannot come fast enough for the country´s Jews. The nation´s economic turmoil has created quite a burden for Dora Lucia Brenner, 55, who runs what may be Brazil´s largest Jewish charity, the Uniao Brasileiro-Israelita do Bem-Estar Social. Known as Unibes, the Sao Paulo-based organization was founded in 1915 to help Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Brenner´s own grandparents came to Brazil from Poland in 1920. Today, Unibes provides housing, day care and financial assistance to 1,500 families. It has an annual budget of $2.5 million. "When I first came to Unibes 15 years ago, we had 500 Jewish families, mostly older and very sick people who had no other means of support," Brenner said. "In the last eight or nine years, because of the economic situation, we have lots of new poor, mainly young people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, people who don´t have jobs. "We are trying very hard to help these people, but it´s hard because Brazil is not in a very good economic situation," she added. Unibes occupies three large buildings along Sao Paulo´s Rua Rodolfo Miranda. Its staff consists of 180 workers and 200 volunteers. In addition to caring for poor Jews, the organization also provides day-care facilities for more than 1,000 non-Jewish children. The organization gets money from the local Sao Paulo government and many foundations. It also has partnerships with Cinemark, a company that develops movie theaters and malls throughout Latin America, Fundacion Vitae, a non-profit organization that funds social and environmental programs, and Accor Hotels, Brenner said. She estimated that Unibes receives between $52 and $62 per month per child to administer the day-care program. Over at Ten Yad, a Chabad-Lubavitch organization, half a dozen female volunteers stood recently serving hot kosher lunches to about 130 pensioners in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Across the hall from the cafeteria, a handful of Yiddish-speaking men were engaged in a lively political discussion. In another room, a group of women sat listening to a lecture on Judaism. Therezinha Davidovich, coordinator of Ten Yad, said her organization served more than 148,000 hot lunches last year. The group has more than 300 volunteers, who do work ranging from helping poor newlyweds get financing for apartments to delivering "meals on wheels" to handicapped or immobile Jews. The group also provides special subsidies for Torah study and holiday meals. "Unfortunately, the demand for our services is rising fast," said Rabbi David Weitman, spiritual director of Ten Yad."More Jews have lost their homes, and more people are alienated from the community because they can´t afford to pay their synagogue membership dues." Rising poverty has put a dent in synagogue membership. Sao Paulo has about 20 to 25 synagogues operating year-round. Most of them are Conservative or Reform. About 15 percent of Brazil´s Jews attend Orthodox services. Last year, the Sao Paulo state government chose Ten Yad to administer a hot-lunch program for indigent Brazilians. Every morning at around 10 a.m., a line forms outside a rented storefront in Baixada, an impoverished neighborhood of Sao Paulo, where Ten Yad serves about 1,700 meals a day. The line often stretches for blocks as homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and Brazilians who simply are down on their luck wait for the meal, which costs about 35 cents. "Since we are Jews, we have to do something for the local population too," Weitman said.The preceding is part of a 10-part series, "Latin America´s Jews." Funding for this series was made possible, in part, by The George Rohr Foundation, Inc.