Around the Jewish World in Brazil, Gay and Lesbian Jews Struggle for Jewish Acceptance

More than 3 million gays, lesbians and their supporters — many dressed in lavish Carnival costumes and waving rainbow-colored flags — paraded in Brazil’s two largest cities earlier this year to celebrate gay pride. Several gay Jews attended, but no Stars of David or chai symbols, the Hebrew letters for “life,” were seen on flags, T-shirts or floats.

“We don’t want overexposure” in the media, said Ari Teperman, the founder of Brazil’s only openly gay and lesbian Jewish group, known by its acronym, JGBR. “We are not currently engaged in the fight for civil rights, but rather for Jewish identity,” he added.

The group was founded in 1999 by a man known as Akiva Bronstein. Only a few years later, Bronstein unveiled his actual identity as Ari Teperman. “It was my code name when I was still in the closet,” he confessed.

Today Teperman is JGBR’s main face. His resume includes interviews for news magazines, Mexican television and G Magazine, the country’s major gay magazine.

Teperman has long been active in Jewish Web discussion groups, including Pletzale, Brazil’s largest Jewish Web forum.

“Despite being the only openly gay member of the group, he gained the respect and friendship of several participants. I would always tell Bronstein to reveal his identity,” Gustavo Erlichman, the founder and moderator of Pletzale, told JTA. “By adopting a pseudonym, he became a victim of self-hatred,” he added.

Affiliated with the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews: Keshet Ga’avah, JGBR was born as an online forum for Jewish men and women to talk about their homosexuality and their struggles to fit into Brazil’s Jewish community.

Of its 320 members, there are 90 active participants, said Teperman. Most members are male; ages vary from 18 to 60.

How to reconcile homosexuality with Judaism and how the various streams of Judaism relate to homosexuality are among the major concerns of the group.

Gay and lesbian Jews in Brazil had their first “off-line” experience of social exposure at the Conference of the Jewish Communities of the Americas, held in May 2004.

The event, which drew Reform and Conservative Jews from across Latin America, took place in Sao Paulo, which is not only Brazil’s largest city, but also home to half of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews.

“It was a milestone for gay Jews in Brazil. Somehow we managed to touch the audience in a human and lovely way about our right to a Jewish identity. Also it opened the doors to more dialogue with the Jewish family,” Teperman told JTA.

Estimating that Jews have the same percentage of gays and lesbians as the general population does, Teperman said some 10 percent of Brazilian Jews, or 12,000 people, are homosexual.

However, being gay is still tough for Artur Feighelstein, 43, an architect living in Rio de Janeiro.

“Jewish culture values the traditional family very much. It expects from every Jewish boy to marry a nice Jewish girl and have children as fast as possible,” he said. “Homosexuality is a much greater taboo within the Jewish family. A Jewish parent is still not able to picture his son or daughter making up a traditional family without getting married.”

For religious families, he added, it’s even worse, since certain biblical passages are seen as prohibiting homosexuality.

Nineteen-year-old D. agreed. He didn’t want to give his name because his family doesn’t know about his sexual orientation. He attends Beit Lubavitch, Rio’s largest Orthodox synagogue.

In an e-mail interview, D. said he thinks he’d have trouble if he came out of the closet.

“Brazilian men are expected to be macho. Jewish boys are expected to marry Jewish girls. An Orthodox Jewish male is expected to thank God for not making him a woman. I hate all these religious and social morays but I stick to them because I can’t live away from my family.”

Dani, a 25-year-old lesbian who asked that only her first name be used, is frustrated by her inability to live a public Jewish life.

“I’m not free inside a synagogue,” she said.

JGBR is not a religious group. “We don’t intend to preach Judaism for gay Jews. Our goal is to promote social inclusion in the Jewish community,” Teperman stressed.

According to him, only two out of more than 100 Brazilian synagogues — both of them liberal — openly welcome gays. One of them is Rio de Janeiro’s Congregacao Judaica do Brasil led by Conservative Rabbi Nilton Bonder, where Teperman was once invited to lecture.

The other is Sao Paulo’s Congregacao Israelita Paulista led by Reform rabbi Henry Sobel and co-led by a team of Conservative rabbis. CIP is Latin America’s largest synagogue, serving some 2,000 families.

For CIP rabbi Alexandre Leone, the 2004 conference definitely opened the doors for gay Jews at CIP. “Actually there is no organized project, but we are concerned and sensitive to welcoming gay Jews,” Leone told JTA.

Leone leads the Friday evening service, Kabbalat Shabbat Neshama, where gays are invited to participate more actively, including taking part in the minyan.

“Each one is welcome and valued without labels,” Leone added.

Teperman and his non-Jewish partner, Ray Ferro, attend the Shabbat service at CIP together. Some 10 other openly gay Jews join in.

“There has never been such a visible group of gay Jews like JGBR in Brazil. We’re pioneers,” Teperman said.

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