Oldest synagogue in the Americas is only non-Christian site to join Brazilian religious tourism project


RIO DE JANEIRO (JTA) — The Kahal Zur Israel, the oldest synagogue in the Americas, has become the first Jewish site to join a Brazilian governmental tourism project.

The synagogue is the only non-Christian temple to join the “Sacred Recife” project, which includes another seven churches, chapels and basilicas in the city of Recife, located in Brazil’s northeastern corner. Since 2014, the initiative has drawn some 72,000 visitors. The Jewish temple will now count on bilingual tour guides to introduce a piece of Jewish history to visitors.

“This invitation represents the perception of our synagogue as an important cultural and historical asset in both national and international scenarios, as well as the recognition of the relevant role that our Jewish community from ancient times plays in the life of the general society where it is immersed,” Sonia Sette, president of the Pernambuco Jewish Federation, told JTA.

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.

“This rescue of the history of the Dutch period in Brazil reminds us of a vision of respect for differences amidst a period of discrimination and intolerance and brings us to a still current reflection on the issue,” Sette added.

In April, a private school in Recife had a third-grade classroom decorated with Nazi flags during a lesson on totalitarian regimes. The school publicized the episode on Facebook and even praised the teacher, who also wore a swastika band around his arm like a Nazi soldier. The federation reacted by inviting the students and history teachers to visit the Kahal Zur Israel temple.

“The Kahal Zur Israel permanently receives tourists and occasional visitors, including schools and universities in the region. We are able to provide an educational space dealing with themes not always evoked in the usual didactic materials,” Sette said.

“Being part of the municipal project will broaden the dissemination of our work and make us part of cultural, educational and tourism circuits,” she added.

Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population — nearly 130 million members — and is home to some 120,000 Jews.

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