SAO PAULO, Brazil, Sept. 29 (JTA) — All wearing white T-shirts, some 200 volunteers from Sao Paulo´s 60,000-strong Jewish community gathered on a sunny Sunday morning in late August to form human chains spelling out the words "Judaism feels good and does good." The event grabbed the attention of the media, and an aerial photo of the slogan, taken from a helicopter, was published in several newspapers. Mission accomplished. The photo opened what was called Tzedakah Day, or social-justice day. Featuring Jewish and Israeli music, family entertainment, workshops and Israeli folk dance, the day-long initiative continued at the Hebraica club, the main meeting point for Sao Paulo´s Jews. Tzedakah Day was part of a broad public relations campaign by the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation to raise funds for community projects and publicize various initiatives to the general Brazilian society. The federation is the umbrella organization for some 55 Jewish institutions in the state, including day schools, synagogues and community centers. "We wish to reach those who are distant from any kind of Jewish life by rescuing their pride for Judaism and traditions, and making them contribute to their institutions," the federation´s president, Jayme Blay, told JTA. The initiative also aims to publicize Jewish-run projects that serve non-Jews. "We must inform society of what we do as Jews not only for Jews, but for everyone who needs charity," Blay added. Launched in early August, the campaign will last through the end of 2003, with the next push planned for the High Holidays. Psychologist Uri Lam, 33, who also is a Bar Mitzvah teacher and cantor, said the campaign will help improve the public image of the Jewish community, which is sometimes seen in Brazil as closed and elitist. "It´s important because it will emphasize the concern of the Jewish community in the struggle against misery and hunger," he said, helping to combat common Brazilian stereotypes of Jews as rich and uncaring. Five different advertisements in major newspapers and magazines and over 30 billboards are the major means to be used in the campaign, which targets the 36 million inhabitants of Sao Paulo state, Brazil´s wealthiest and most populous region. The ads and billboards picture five local personalities photographed with Jewish symbols. None of the people shown is known to be Jewish by the vast majority of Brazilians. Businessman Luciano Huck, who runs the most-watched Saturday afternoon youth television program, is shown blowing a shofar. Tufi Duek, a fashion stylist who owns the refined clothing brands Triton and Forum, is pictured wearing a tallit. Joyce Pascowitch, a columnist in the weekly news magazine Epoca, is shown reading a prayer book. Didi Wagner, a DJ on MTV Brazil, is pictured holding a Star of David, and Mary Nigri, a businesswoman who owns four fancy restaurants, is shown holding a seder plate. "This is the way we found to call the attention of non-Jews and those Jews who are not engaged in the Jewish community," Blay said. "The intention is to show that celebrities from the various segments such as TV, gastronomy, fashion and journalism are not ashamed to admit their Jewishness and their traditions." Import/export purchaser Marcelo Ankier, 23, said that one of his non-Jewish co-workers questioned him on what the billboards meant. "I told her very carefully about several projects run by the federation, including its engagement in the government-run Zero Hunger project," Ankier said. Beside each picture is a short text about projects run by the Jewish federation. The projects, several of them promoted by Jewish welfare institutions, serve not only Jews but some 100,000 people in Sao Paulo state, according to Blay. Some 15,000 Jewish homes are receiving leaflets about the campaign, with contribution requests enclosed. A telemarketing system was implemented to receive donations. In addition, Jewish institutions have received some 10,000 leaflets explaining the meaning of tzedakah, or charity, entitled "Tzedakah — A Guide for You to Better Understand this Mitzvah." An article by Blay explaining the campaign was published in Sao Paulo´s most influential paper, Folha de Sao Paulo. In addition, Blay and other federation leaders visited Folha´s competitor, O Estado de Sao Paulo, and Brazil´s most-read weekly magazine, Veja. "We´re taking a proactive and positive positioning, and not only a reactive or defensive one. We will show everything that we Jews do, independently of what is going on in Israel," explained David Diesendruck, the federation´s marketing director. "We believe this way a strong good will be created in the public opinion and — why not? — reduce the media attacks" on Israel. Persio Bider, 25, who directs the World Zionist Organization´s youth department in Sao Paulo, hopes the campaign can help bring unaffiliated Jews back to the fold. "It´s very important to prepare the upcoming generations," he said in an interview. "Integration is inevitable but we must be able to transmit our culture in our houses, schools, youth movements."
Marcus M. Gilban is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals.