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E-mail Lists ‘good Addiction’ for Brazil’s Jewish Community

February 27, 2002
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Brazil’s 120,000 Jews increasingly are using the Internet to learn more about their heritage.

The listas de discussao — Portuguese for “discussion lists” — have become an alternative “non-shul” way for Brazilian Jews of all ages to debate the meaning of their Jewishness, discuss Jewish religion and culture and get news about Israel and the Diaspora.

In addition, these virtual forums offer a great opportunity to develop new friendships, meet old friends and — why not? — find a date.

For Rabbi Sergio Margulies, “Judaism is characterized by debate, rather than obligatory ideas.”

Margulies, a confessed Internet addict, is the spiritual leader at the Associacao Religiosa Israelita do Rio de Janeiro, also known as ARI. The 800-family congregation, the largest in Rio, is affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements.

“The study of the Torah makes us understand the different interpretations of the various commentators,” he said. “The Talmud itself is an enormous net of rabbis who dialogue among themselves, transcending their own place and time.”

The Talmud is a “philosophical precursor of the debate groups that the Internet technology is able to provide nowadays,” he added.

Among some of the older Web sites popular with Brazilian Jews:

Pletzale, Yiddish for “a small get-together.”

The Pletzale discussion list includes about 180 members who exchange an average of 80 daily e-mails. These messages include analyses of Torah laws, discussions about Israeli-Palestinian relations, personal accounts of members’ encounters with anti-Semitism and information about Jewish holidays.

According to Gustavo Erlichman, 22, the discussion list’s founder and moderator: “Thanks to the site’s pluralism, people of all ideologies are able to engage in friendly debate.”

Unishalom, which is known for attracting college-aged Jews. Its discussion list has some 80 members, aged 18-30.

“I subscribe to more than five discussion lists on Judaism, but it is particularly nice to see young Jews debate all kinds of Jewish subjects at Unishalom,” Andre Occenstein, 25, said.

“At Unishalom, I found people who I had met years ago on trips specially organized by the Jewish community to bring Jewish young people together,” said Tamara Socolik, 27, who lives in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. “At Unishalom, I found the right place to get back to those delicious discussions.”

Unishalom’s members meet in person three times a year, during Israeli dance festivals held in Brazil.

Danielle Bar, 27, said she doesn’t dance at the festivals, but always joins a dance group “when there is a festival coming up so I can enjoy the event and meet my cyberfriends.”

Pletzale’s members also have met in person. The list’s first meeting took place in a Sao Paulo bar in December, when members celebrated the site’s third anniversary.

A new discussion list is Shachar Brasil, which founder Etel Wengier described as a pro-Israel group with a common past in youth movements and no affiliation to any political parties or religious institutions.

Shachar Brasil has about 110 members. Unlike Pletzale and Unishalom, Shachar Brasil’s e-mail topics focus almost exclusively on Israeli politics.

Other, more recent, discussion lists have been created by Brazilian Jews for specific purposes. For example, the ARI-Forum includes members of the ARI congregation; Jornalistas Judeus allows Jewish journalists to discuss media issues; Estudos Judaicos deals with Hebrew literature and language studies; JudeusGaysBr is tailored to gay Jews; and Ivritmeshugas is for those who enjoy debating in transliterated Hebrew using the Latin alphabet.

Among the various lists’ subscribers are Brazilian Jews who live abroad, most of them in Israel.

Judite Orensztajn, 57, of Rio de Janeiro, made aliyah in 1978 with her husband and children. She now lives in Jerusalem and works at the Ministry of Education.

“Pletzale is a good addiction,” she said. “I just love to be a member so that I can be aware of what is going on in Brazil, and also to give my account of what is going on over here.

“I’ve made new friends and met an old dear friend. I’ve received online friends at my house, and I look forward to welcoming future” immigrants, she said.

Non-Jews are welcomed at these sites, but only if they adhere to the rules.

“Unfortunately, we must be extremely careful,” said Erlichman, Pletzale’s founder. He spoke of Christian proselytizers who “insistently try to invade the list and preach Christian dogma, which is unbearable.”

“Like in any discussion list, Jewish or not, there are some people who just don’t behave properly,” he added. “If necessary, we must be tough and eventually remove these brats.”

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