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Around the Jewish World Brazil’s First Female Rabbi Takes Praise — and Surprise — in Stride

February 13, 2004
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When Sandra Kochmann took the post of assistant rabbi at Rio de Janeiro’s largest synagogue, becoming the first female rabbi in Brazil, many Brazilian Jews dismissed her derisively as a “Paraguayan.”

In Brazil, “Paraguayan” is commonly used to mean “fake” due to the prodigious amount of smuggled goods, many of them knock-offs, that cross the border from Paraguay into Brazil.

Kochmann readily admits she’s Paraguayan — she even keeps the flag of her home country’s soccer team on her desk — but there’s no mistaking that she’s for real.

“I am opening doors,” she says in an interview with JTA, speaking in Spanish-accented Portugese.

Kochmann, 33, officially started her job as assistant rabbi at the 1,000-family Associacao Religiosa Israelita, or ARI, in late 2003. The synagogue is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements.

The elegant and composed Kochmann was chosen from a handful of applicants after a drawn-out process in which candidates visited the synagogue and led religious services and celebrations. She attended the Marshall T. Meyer rabbinical seminary in Argentina and finished her rabbinic studies in Israel.

“We chose the most competent professional, the one who could best meet our congregation’s needs,” says Nelson Kuperman, ARI’s president.

Women long have struggled to achieve equality at ARI. It has been a gradual process, with women first granted the right to read the Haftarah and eventually being allowed to chant the Torah portion and lead services, Kuperman said. Today, women Torah readers and cantors are common at the synagogue.

But change has not always been easy for congregants.

A 68-year-old congregant, a lawyer who identified herself as Edite G., says she was taken aback when she first saw Kochmann on the bimah during Shabbat services.

Edite asked her granddaughter, “How will she get close to the Torah during her menstruation period?” — referring to what many believe is a prohibition against menstruating women touching the Torah.

Like many of her responses, Kochmann has a quick answer for Edite.

“The Torah is so sacred that it wouldn’t get impure in any circumstance,” she says.

Kochmann says equality is rooted in the Bible: “God created man and woman at the same time in His image, but the next chapter’s story that tells that Eve came out of Adam’s ribs was the one imposed by our patriarchal system,” she explains.

Orthodox Jews in Brazil have been less accepting of Kochmann. Jewish journalist Arnaldo Bloch, writing in O Globo, Rio’s largest newspaper, recently wrote that for the Orthodox, “a woman rabbi is hard to swallow. Even more so without a beard.”

In her debut ceremony at ARI, Kochmann was warmly welcomed with the Shehecheyanu blessing — said over new things or singular events — sung by cantors backed by the synagogue’s organ.

That Friday evening, Kochmann faced her first in-shul challenge. The microphone she was using went dead as soon as she began her introduction to hundreds of congregants and Jewish leaders from several Jewish institutions.

The pale-skinned, blue-eyed Kochmann unfolded her prepared sermon, took a deep breath and did her best to fill the sanctuary with her voice. Most attendees could not hear her. They just watched as the short-haired figure wearing a colorful Moroccan-style yarmulke spoke. About five minutes after, the microphone came back on.

Judging from congregants’ reactions, Kochmann passed the microphone test with flying colors.

“ARI’s achievement makes us very proud,” says Diane Kuperman, vice president of the Rio de Janeiro state Jewish Federation and wife of the synagogue’s president. “I can’t understand how women who are completely inserted in the community can accept a submissive role when it comes time to accomplish religious tasks.”

Psychologist and cantor Uri Lam says Kochmann is opening doors for “new female rabbis, chazaniot — or female cantors — female directors of synagogues, female Jewish leaders. She may also be opening doors to those Jews who, for one reason or another, have never identified with traditional community and religious practices.”

Sao Paulo has only one egalitarian synagogue like Rio’s ARI, called Congregacao Shalom. Rio’s Jewish community, while only half as large as Sao Paulo’s 60,000, has two: ARI and Congregacao Judaica do Brasil.

“I hope she is the first of a team,” said Rabbi Henry Sobel, a Reform rabbi who is president of the rabbinate of the 2,000-family Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Brazil’s largest synagogue, in Sao Paulo.

Both Sobel’s synagogue and ARI were founded more than six decades ago by German immigrants supported by the World Union of Progressive Judaism. ARI has become openly egalitarian, but Sobel’s synagogue still does not allow full female participation in religious services.

Kochmann’s hire has met with some criticism.

“Nothing is more degrading than a woman wearing a kipah and pink tallit and reading the Torah,” said Rabbi David Weitman, the Orthodox rabbi of Beit Chabad. “It’s not forbidden, but it’s a millenary custom that must not be changed.”

Not surprisingly, Kochmann disagrees. She says she is loyal to herself by “respecting the past and drinking from the traditions,” but not following regulations formulated in times when women spent most of their lives in the home.

“Jewish law exempted women from religious tasks because they had other duties. But this cannot be misinterpreted as a prohibition,” she says.

Meanwhile, Kochmann has blended in among the Cariocas, as Rio’s natives are called. Besides being a big soccer fan — albeit for another country’s team — the young rabbi loves the sea.

Not that Kochmann has had much time to take advantage of Rio’s leisure offerings. She has been too busy unpacking at her newly-rented home near the synagogue, organizing her papers and carefully preparing her sermons.

“ARI is a large congregation, so there are a lot of rabbinical tasks to be performed,” Kochmann says. “And it’s teamwork. Senior Rabbi Sergio Margulies — who has more experience in the position — will perform most of the life cycle ceremonies, and I — as ARI’s assistant rabbi — will complement the work, especially in the educational area.”

But congregants are still getting used to seeing Kochmann on the pulpit.

“In general, I’ve received so far a very warm welcome. But I’m surprised with the reaction of some people when they see me. They don’t know how to say hello to me or how to start a conversation,” she says. “I think that my major challenge is to make people see Jewish women participating in all the Jewish rituals in an egalitarian form — not as a phenomenon, but as a natural reality.”

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