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Around the Jewish World Synagogue Offers Alternative to Orthodox Judaism in Brazil

In a chic Rio de Janeiro suburb, a Jewish congregation occasionally holds services in mountainous tropical forest surrounding the city, at beaches that ring the city and at old colonial fortresses. Welcome to the Jewish Congregation of Brazil, where Rabbi Nilton Bonder has melded Conservative and Jewish renewal movement ideas to create a 550-member congregation that is perhaps the most politically and socially liberal Jewish religious group in the country.

In Brazil, the minority of Jews which are ritually observant are nearly all Orthodox. The rest are called liberals, the equivalent of Reform Jews in the United States.

Like the Orthodox synagogues in Rio, Bonder’s congregation chants in Hebrew. Congregants wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls, and most keep kosher. Many also attend daily services in the morning and afternoon.

But as is common in the renewal movement, Bonder’s services feature a lively musical accompaniment, in this case a guitarist, flutist and keyboard player. Some congregants occasionally join hands and spontaneously break into a circle dance around seated or standing prayers.

The rabbi’s sermon, which ends the service, often embraces mystical, kabbalistic teachings.

Women also read from the Torah, and men and women sit together, unlike the seating arrangements at the 20 Orthodox synagogues in Rio.

Rabbi Henry Sobel, the head of Congregacao Israelita Paulista, the largest liberal congregation in Latin America with 12,000 members, praised Bonder, as being “a novelty, in the best sense of the word.”

He added: There is really no one like Bonder in Brazil or the rest of Latin America. What he offers is his charismatic personality and his innovations, like having services at the beach, which make him a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. His charisma, his innovations, and perhaps even his having integrated seating for men and women, are bringing many Brazilian Jews back to Judaism.”

Many of the Jews in Bonder’s congregation are politically left-wing: pro-gay rights, pro-women’s rights, concerned with environmental issues and willing to be critical of Israel.

“Brazil’s 150,000-strong Jewish community is so small that it feels threatened and to protect itself, adopts right-wing positions,” said the boyish-looking, 46-year-old Bonder, also an avid surfer. “Our congregation is more left-wing politically than the average Jew in Brazil, who tends to be orthodox. And yet our members are more observant, in terms of Jewish tradition and ritual than most Jews in the reform movement in the United States.”

Osias Wurman, the vice president of the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, an umbrella organization for 13 regional federations, and the president of the Rio de Janeiro State Jewish Federation, praised Bonder’s work. “Bonder has provided a outlet for non-Orthodox Jews who want to practice and observe Jewish holidays, often in very creative ways,” said Wurman.

Eveli and Andre Zylberglejd and their three teenage children had not attended any synagogue until discovering Bonder’s congregation two years ago. “Bonder brings together a mix of the old, like maintaining religious traditions, and the new, like allowing men and women to sit together and being pro-women’s rights, “said Eveli, a 39-year-old computer systems analyst. “And even the religious traditions we practice have a modern twist. On Rosh Hashanah, the congregation goes to the beach at sunrise to pray and throw bread crumbs, representing the old, into the sea.”

Claudio Rehfeld, a 43-year-old engineer, whose family has been part of Bonder’s congregation since 1994, agreed. “Bonder offers a strong link to Jewish tradition, but, by incorporating music and dance, does so in a spiritually joyful way, similar to Chasidic Judaism,” said Rehfeld. “None of the other Rio synagogues practices Judaism in this modern way.”

Bonder started the congregation in 1990 after being ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1988. He is known in Brazil as the “Green Rabbi” for his environmental and civil rights activism, and is the author of more than a dozen books. His latest book, “Our Immoral Soul: A Manifesto of Spiritual Disobedience,” deals with the belief that Jews must be guided by the essence of the law, rather than the letter of the law.

The book has been published in the United States was included in the “Best Jewish Writing 2002,” organized by Tikkun Magazine. Some of his other books are: “The Kabbalah of Envy,” about transforming hatred, anger and other negative emotions; “The Kabbalah of Money” and “The Kabbalah of Food.”

“I write to present Judaism as a tradition that is relevant and useful to people,” said Bonder. “Jews who read my books discover a more meaningful approach to their religion that brings them closer to the Jewish community.”

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