BRASILIA, Brazil (JTA) — Looking from above, the design of Brazil’s capital city resembles an airplane.
It’s a fitting metaphor for the city’s Jews, who probably spend more time at the airport in Brasilia than any institution in the city.
The airport also is part of the routine of a couple of Jewish 20-somethings from Rio de Janeiro who fly to Brasilia once a month to organize Jewish activities for some 25 children aged 5 to 13.
They are madrichim, or counselors, for the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, which recently opened a branch in Brasilia.
"The fact that there is no Jewish school in the city makes parents more willing to taking their kids to a Jewish movement,” said Gil Chor, 23, one of the Rio-based coordinators for the group.
Known as Shomer, the organization “uses non-formal education through group activities to teach our ideology, humanist Judaism, love for the nature, respect and so on," he said.
The Jewish population of Brasilia is comprised mostly of families who have moved for professional reasons and still commute to their hometowns in places such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Though they are only part-timers in Brasilia, they play a key role in sustaining Jewish life in the capital of Latin America’s largest country.
"We have an established Jewish population of some 300 people, plus a floating population that come and go working for the government," said Vivienne Landwehr, 56, president of the Brasilia Israelite Cultural Association, the city’s only Jewish institution.
Shomer’s activities take place at the Israelite Cultural Association. Known by its Portuguese acronym, ACIB, the association serves as the cultural, social and religious center for Brasilia’s Jews. The 45-year-old institution hosts prayer services, classes, lectures and luncheons. Volunteers run its operations.
The community’s limited budget, dearth of affiliated Jews, high rate of assimilation, and the growing number of so-called messianic Jews and Christian proselytizers present Brasilia’s Jews with some serious challenges.
“Despite their small number and their distance to the main Jewish communities, the Jews of Brasilia struggle to maintain a center for Judaism here in the capital," Israel’s ambassador to Brazil, Giora Becher, told JTA.
Though Hashomer Hatzair is the world’s oldest Zionist youth movement, with some 7,000 members in the Diaspora scattered about some 20 countries, Shomer reached Brasilia less than two years ago.
After learning of the positive experience that Florianopolis, a southern city in Brazil, had with the movement, community members from Brasilia decided to import the movement here. Shomer now has 220 members in four Brazilian cities, according to Chor.
Parents say it has been a big success.
Translator Erica Saubermann Alem moved from Rio to Brasilia four years ago when her husband took a government job. Their 5-year-old son, Theo, recently joined Shomer.
"The greatest value of Shomer is that it allows Theo to feel Jewish by keeping contact with our customs and having other Jewish friends — in short, things he wouldn’t learn at home because I’m not religious enough to teach,” Alem said.
"The existence of Shomer is a major source of Jewish culture to my children,” said Sao Paulo state prosecutor Andre Brawerman, whose kids, aged 7 and 4, attend Shomer activities. “Unity and friendship within the Jewish community is key in an inhospitable city like Brasilia, where people are as dry as the weather.”
Travel expenses for the madrichim who visit Brasilia from Rio are shared among the students’ parents. To keep costs down, the Shomer activists usually sleep at the home of Leslie Sasson Cohen, ACIB’s former cultural director.
Mikhael Assuncao, 22, is a proud local madrich, or counselor. A Brasilia native, he was trained by more experienced counselors from Rio and Sao Paulo.
"In 2010 there will be the very first activity exclusively held by madrichim from Brasilia,” Assuncao boasted. “A local camp is scheduled for this year, and we intend to take our kids to the national camp as well."
Since the movement is so small in Brasilia, the children are not as segmented by age as they would be elsewhere. Participants range from 4 to 13. Assuncao hopes some of the participants will make up the first generation of Brasilia’s homegrown Shomer madrichim.
Cohen shares Assuncao’s hopes but says many challenges remain.
"The biggest challenge to work at ACIB is that we lack a little bit of professionalism,” she said. “We need more organization, planning and updating our goals. We need to recycle."