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The Eulogizer: Rabbi, wrestler, entrepreneur Rafael Halperin, Ralf Pinto, Algarve community founder

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org. Read previous columns here.

Rafael Halperin, 87, rabbi, wrestler, entrepreneur

Rafael Halperin, whose fame in Israel as a wrestler and body builder was exceeded only by the ubiquity of his eyeglass stores, died Aug. 20 at 87 in Bnei Brak.

From a single store in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak 15 years ago, Optica Halperin has expended to become the largest eyeglass store chain in Israel, with more than 120 outlets across the country.

“About 15 years ago he opened an eyewear business for charity in Bnei Brak, and because it was for benevolent purposes, it expanded to 128 stores,” one of his sons said. “Father was thus responsible for the drop in the prices of eyeglasses in Israel."

Optica Halperin began, however, following Halperin’s return to a religious lifestyle after a colorful career as a wrestler and bodybuilder.

He won a world championship in freestyle wrestling and awards in mandatory Palestine in martial arts, wrestling and body building. One story suggested his interest in bodybuilding was sparked by an anti-Semitic incident that drove him to prove that Jews “were not the nebbishes depicted in cartoons and comic strips but could hold their own in a fight.”

Another article cited a New York Daily News description of Halperin in 1953: "The dark-eyed, handsome athlete would like to train enough Israeli athletes for the Blue-and-White to make a fine showing in future Olympics. But, even more important, he wants to give his countrymen the benefit of his body-building knowledge so that they may better face the arduous years still ahead."

He was reported to have used the titles, “Mr. Israel” and "The Rasslin’ Rabbi" in America, where he “won” 159 consecutive bouts, in part because he refused to lose a match despite the “scripts” followed in professional wrestling. He also didn’t pander to the crowd as professional wrestling calls for, because he “came to America to wrestle representing the State of Israel and the Jewish people and could not fake or be phony.”

Upon returning to Israel, he opened a chain of bodybuilding fitness centers before returning to religious observance and Torah study 35 years ago.

He published books on Jewish history and an encyclopedia, donated to yeshivas and synagogues, and supported Shabbat observance by financing broadcasting systems in Israeli cities to alert the public on Friday afternoons of Shabbat’s beginning, encouraging businesses to close on Shabbat and working with banks to develop a Shabbat-observant credit card.

Halperin was born to a religious family in Vienna in 1924 and moved to Mandate Palestine with his family as a teenager. He is survived by 12 children (five from a first marriage and seven from a second), and more than 50 grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Ralf Pinto, 70s, founder of Algarve Jewish community

Ralf Pinto, who founded the Algarve Jewish community in western Portugal and was instrumental in the restoration of the Faro Jewish Cemetery there, died Aug. 7, and became the first person to be buried there since 1923.

Pinto, a retired electrical contractor, moved to the Algarve in 1991 after vacationing there. He had been a resident of South Africa. “We bought a holiday home here in the mid-80s and came on vacation every year for a couple of months,” Pinto said in a magazine interview. “After about seven years of doing this, my wife announced that she didn’t want to go back to South Africa. We love the relaxed atmosphere here and the calm lifestyle, but we also missed having a Jewish community such as the one we had in Cape Town.”

In 1991, the Algarve Jewish Community was established during a Chanukah tea party at his home. Since then, holidays have been celebrated with tea parties or dinners, with the annual highlight a communal Pesach seder.

The cemetery was rededicated in 1983 after a lengthy effort. Pinto was master of ceremonies at the event, which drew Portuguese President Mario Soares, among other dignitaries. The Jewish cemetery of Faro saw 106 burials from 1838 to 1932 and was once outside Faro’s old city, but is now in front of the Faro Hospital.

The cemetery “made our community known and is our flagship,” Pinto once said. “We don’t have a synagogue or community center, and so we hold our festival gatherings at Mariner’s Restaurant in Portimao, which is housed in the last remaining building of the Judiaria (the Jewish ghetto before the 1496 Edict of Expulsion). But we often meet up at the cemetery in Faro and afterwards go out for lunch.”

More than 120 people attended Pinto’s burial. His son, Jose Pinto, described it as a “fitting” remembrance. “There were more people than we expected at the service, given the short notice that people had. The service was very dignified and went according to custom.”

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