RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — When the 2016 Olympic Games open on Friday, August 5, the eyes of the world will be on Rio — the first South American city to host the quadrennial event.
True, the build-up to the massive event — which will feature a record number of countries competing in a record number of sports — hasn’t been easy, with reports of unfinished venues, polluted swimming and sailing sites and, most of all, concerns about the spread of Zika.
The run of bad news has put a damper on what should have been a moment of triumph for the people of Brazil, especially Brazil’s Jewish community: The three top officials of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, including its president, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, are Members of the Tribe.
But what about the remaining 120,000 or so Jews who call Brazil home? Who exactly are they? Here’s what you need to know.
How many Jews are there in Brazil?
There are about 120,000 Jews in Brazil, according to local estimates, or between 90,000-100,000, according to some international sources. Either way, Brazil boasts the second largest Jewish population in Latin America — behind Argentina — and is home to the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world.
Brazil is home to some 204 million people. About 87 percent of them are Christian, including the world’s largest Catholic population of 124 million. Evangelicals are the fastest-growing group; today they number more than 42 million, most of them strong supporters of Israel.
Brazil is home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East with some 10 million members, though the overwhelming majority is Christian. Only some 35,000 are Muslim, with most living in the Triple Frontier area, where the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay converge.
Where do they live?
Approximately 60,000 Jews — about half of Brazil’s Jewish population — live in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and its financial and cultural powerhouse. Rio comes in second with a population of nearly 40,000, according to the World Jewish Congress.
In Sao Paulo, the Jewish community has prospered; many Jews have moved from the immigrant enclave of Bom Retiro to the upscale Higienopolis area, where several synagogues, kosher shops and other institutions may be found.
Between the 1920s and 1960s, Jewish immigrants in Rio concentrated in the downtown district of Praca Onze — incidentally the birthplace of samba — before moving on to wealthier areas such as Tijuca and Copacabana, where the largest number of Jewish institutions are.
In addition, about 10,000 Jews live in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.
What are Brazil’s most influential Jewish institutions?
The CONIB, or Brazilian Israelite Confederation, is the central political representative of the Brazilian Jewish community. Established in 1948, it gathers 14 state federations with some 200 institutions. CONIB sets the Jewish community relations agenda, with the fight against anti-Semitism a key task.
The Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital, in Sao Paulo, is one of Brazil’s strongest Jewish institutions. Built by donations from well-known Jewish families in 1955, it is considered Latin America’s best hopsital. “The Einstein makes proud not only the Jewish community but all of Brazil,” said Alberto Milkewitz, executive director of the local Jewish federation.
The centerpieces of Jewish life in Brazil, however, are Hebraicas: multifaceted Jewish sports clubs that combine the functions of a Jewish community center and a country club. Sao Paulo’s Hebraica is the largest Jewish organization in Brazil, with 18,000 members. Its activities include sports competitions, theater, youth movements, religious services, music and dance festivals — it even operates a day school.
Rio’s Hebraica, though less grand and struggling to modernize its facilities, remains an epicenter of the city’s Jewish life. It hosts the famed Hava Netze Bemachol dance festival and Maccabi soccer matches.
How did Jews get to Brazil?
The Jewish presence in Brazil is more than 500 years old. Gaspar da Gama — a Jew by birth who was forcibly baptized — accompanied Portuguese admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed in Brazil in 1500. Other New Christians or conversos were aboard the ships.
Jews began settling in Brazil once the Inquisition reached Portugal in the 16th century. In 1624, the Dutch — who were tolerant of Jewish migration and open practice of religion — took over portions of northeast Brazil. In 1637, Jews built the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue in Recife, which was closed by the Portuguese when the Dutch were expelled in 1654. (It was re-opened in 2002 and now stands as the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas, housing a Jewish cultural center and museum.)
In 1773, a Portuguese royal decree finally abolished discrimination against Jews. Jews slowly filtered back to Brazil. Almost 50 years later, independent Brazil’s first constitution in 1824 granted freedom of religion. A stream of Moroccan Jews began arriving, and set up in the Amazon region.
The population was swelled by waves of Russian and Polish Jews escaping pogroms and the Russian Revolution, and again during the 1930s during the rise of Nazis in Europe. In the late 1950s, another wave brought thousands of North African Jews.
Although they make up roughly only .06 percent of Brazil’s population, Brazil’s Jews play an important role in many different fields and activities in the country, including politics, academia, banking, industry, culture, entertainment, and sports.
What’s the identity of Brazilian Jews?
Brazil’s Jewish community is mostly comprised of Ashkenazi Jews of Polish and German descent, but there is a sizable community of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews of Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Moroccan ancestry.
Most of Brazil’s Jews identify themselves as secular and Zionist. Until the 1930s, under the influence of the Eastern European immigrants, the main religious stream was Orthodox. With the arrival of Jews from Central Europe, the Reform movement was introduced as well. Today the largest synagogues are Conservative and Reform: Sao Paulo’s CIP and Rio’s ARI. In recent years, the Chabad movement has grown significantly.
How do Brazilian Jews respond to anti-Semitism?
The results of a global survey on anti-Semitic sentiments, released by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014, ranks Brazil among the least anti-Semitic countries in world. It’s the third-lowest on the “Anti-Semitic Index” in the Americas, only behind the U.S. and Canada.
In Brazil it is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes anti-Semitism or racism. Manufacturing, trading and distributing items adorned with swastikas is also against the law. The number of online anti-Semitic incidents has been growing, though.
“We’ll be always alert to anti-Semitic expressions and take the appropriate actions in order to avoid the proliferation of this type of discrimination,” Sao Paulo Jewish federation’s executive president Ricardo Berkiensztat recently told JTA.
What are Brazil-Israel relations like?
Brazil has had ties with Israel since its inception: Brazilian diplomat Oswaldo Aranha presided over the United Nations General Assembly session that voted for the partition of Palestine and for the creation of a Jewish state in 1947. “As Jewish Brazilians, we are very proud that a Brazilian like us has a historic participation by sealing the act that, after 2,000 years, gave the Land of Israel to whom it belongs by right,” Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, told JTA.
Since late 2015, however, an unprecedented diplomatic quarrel has left the Israel’s ambassador slot in Barazil vacant, when Brasilia rebuffed the appointment of ex-settler leader Dani Dayan. The crisis is not yet resolved, though Dayan was subsequently appointed Israel’s consul general in New York.
The number of Brazilian Jews making aliyah more than doubled between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, nearly 500 individuals immigrated to Israel from Brazil, compared with only 191 in 2011. The tough economic climate in Brazil, combined with urban violence and government corruption, have been driving factors as Brazilians move to Israel seeking “quality of life.”