The Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB) estimates that there are more than 120,000 Jews in Brazil, making it the tenth largest Jewish community in the world and second largest in Latin America, behind Argentina. Brazilian Jews play an active role in politics, sports, academia, commerce and industry, and in general they are well integrated into all spheres of Brazilian life. Brazilian Jews generally enjoy comfort, security and prosperity in a country characterized by the harmonious coexistence of diverse ethnic groups. The Jewish community in Brazil is represented by the CONIB (Confederación Israelita de Brasil) – the Brazilian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.
The presence of Jews in Brazil can be traced back to the 16th century, when Jews who escaped from the Inquisition arrived there - many as so-called “new Christians,” that is, converts to Christianity who continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret. Around that time, Jews became involved in the first sugar plantations in Brazil.
By 1645, there were about 1500 Jews in the region, and the community was well organized, with a Torah, a tzedakah fund, and an executive committee. Members of the community worked in numerous positions, as businessmen, teachers, writers, poets, and even importers and exporters. Around this time, Dutch forces took over portions of northeast Brazil, and brought with them a toleration for Jewish migration in the colonies. As a result, a number of Jews flourished in commerce.
However, Portuguese anti-Jewish persecution intensified during this time, and as a result, many Jews fled Brazil to Dutch holdings such as Curacao and New York. The eventual abolition of such discrimination in 1773 saw the slow rebuilding of the Jewish community in the country. By the time Brazil gained independence in 1822, the community had solidly established itself.
During this time, Moroccan Jews arrived in the Amazon and settled in Belém, Manaus, and in the cities of the tributaries of the Amazon River. Ashkenazi Jews from Alsace-Lorraine and some Sephardic Jews settled in Rio de Janeiro, the capital of what was then the Kingdom of Brazil. Towards the end of the 19th century, European Jews began considering establishing agricultural settlements in Brazil in light of the antisemitic conditions that pervaded Europe. Various attempts throughout the ensuing decades, and into the 20th century, at establishing an autonomous Jewish community proved unsuccessful.
The end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century was quite notable for Brazilian Jewry, as it saw an influx of immigration that reached its peak between 1926 and 1942 when more than 50,000 Jews entered Brazil. Jews from Eastern Europe formed Ashkenazi communities in the Northeast region, specifically in the cities of Recife and Salvador. Jewish immigrants from Russia, Bessarábia, and Poland formed communities in the south, either in the colonies of Baron Hirsch, in Porto Alegre and Curitiba, or in the main cities, such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
However, the end of the 1930s also saw a rise in antisemitism as Brazil began an assimilation effort in 1938 that had the consequence of shutting down Yiddish newspaper and Jewish organizations. This was followed by a wave of antisemitism that included several publications of the notorious forgery, the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” It was not until the adoption of a more democratic constitution in 1945 that Jewish communal activities returned to normal.
The post-World War II years saw another influx of Jewish immigration that not only stabilized Brazilian Jewry, but also was indicative of the success of Jewish life in the country. This was seen with the election of six Jews to the federal legislature, state legislatures, and municipal councils in the ensuing decades and throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Jamie Lerner, as a notable example, served as Governor of Parana from 1995 to 2002.
Today, the Brazilian Jewish community lives in peace and stability, able to practice their religion freely while enjoying being a contributing and vibrant part of Brazilian society. Jews continue to play a large role in Brazil, as Jacques Wagner served as Governor of Bahia from 2007 to 2015 and Minister of Defense in 2015. Tarso Genro served as Governor of Rio Grande do Sul from 2011 to 2015.
In the 1930s, German Jews settled in Brazil, mainly to Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Jewish immigration continued, mainly through negotiations on a case-by-case basis, but not in an organized way through the assistance of aid organizations. About 17,500 Jews entered the country between 1933 and 1939, but tensions leading to the outbreak of World War II saw Brazil adopt an immigration policy that banned further Jewish refugees from entering the country.
During that period, the Brazilian ambassador to France, Ambassador Luis Martins de Souza Dantas, began granting immigration visas to hundreds of French Jews, despite Brazil’s ban on Jewish immigration. His actions saved the lives of hundreds of Jews.
According to the Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB), there are more than 120,000 Jews in Brazil, while Hebrew University demographer Sergio estimates that there were between 94,200 and 150,000 Jews in that country as of 2010. The majority of Brazilian Jews live in the State of São Paulo, but there are also important communities in the states of Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco and Paraná.
The Brazilian Jewish community is organized as a federation, meaning that the different Jewish communities in each Brazilian state have their own organizations. The Jewish Confederation of Brazil (CONIB), founded in 1951, acts as the central body that represents all the Jewish communities in Brazil. There are approximately two hundred associations in the country aimed at promoting Zionist activity and Jewish-oriented education, culture, and charity.
All major international Zionist organizations are represented in Brazil. The Israelite Albert Einstein Hospital, in São Paulo, is one of the strongest Jewish institutions in Brazil. Built by donations of traditional Jewish families in 1955, it is considered one of the best hospitals in Latin America.
Brazil has a number of multifaceted Jewish sports clubs, which combine the functions of a Jewish community center with that of a country club. Hebraica São Paulo is the largest Jewish organization in Brazil, with 18,000 members and its activities include sports competitions, theater, youth movements, religious services, music and dance festivals - even a day school and a kosher restaurant operate inside Hebraica del Rio. Although less large and struggling to modernize its facilities, Hebraica del Rion remains an epicenter of Jewish life in the city, hosting the famous Hava Netze Bemachol dance festival and Macca football matches.
Jews lead an open religious life in Brazil and cases of anti-Semitism are rarely reported in the country. In the main urban centers there are schools, associations and synagogues where Brazilian Jews can practice and transmit Jewish culture and traditions. Some Jewish scholars say that the only threat facing Judaism in Brazil is the relatively high frequency of mixed marriages, which in 2002 was estimated at 60%.
In terms of religious identification, Brazil’s Jewish population encompasses a wide spectrum of streams of Judaism, from liberal to Orthodox. Most of the Jewish community in Brazil identifies itself as a Zionist.
Most synagogues are Conservative or Reform. The Paulista Israeli Congregation (in Portuguese: Congregação Israelita Paulista) is located in São Paulo, Brazil. It is the largest synagogue in Latin America, serving more than 1500 people. It was founded in 1936 by a group of refugees from Nazi Germany, as a Reform synagogue, but also has links with the Conservative movement. In recent years, the Chabad movement has made inroads in São Paulo, establishing several synagogues, several Mikvaot and a kindergarten.
Kosher food is readily available and there are also many kosher restaurants throughout the country.
Jewish education is organized by the National Institute of Education and Culture, and each state has its own committee. São Paulo has four orthodox schools and four traditional schools. There are several Jewish schools in Rio de Janeiro, including the 500-student Bar-Ilan school, which also has a kosher dining room and a synagogue.
The youth movements of Hashomer Hatzair, B'nai Akiva, Chazit Hanoar, Netzach and Habonim Dror are active in Brazil. B’nai Brith also operates in Brazil, offering young Brazilian Jews the ability to connect with other young Jews across the world. There are sports clubs affiliated with Hebraica in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that provide recreation and cultural resources.
The first Jewish newspaper published in idyll in Brazil was Di Menscheit, in 1915 in Porto Alegre, and the communities in several cities maintained intense press, theater and cultural activity in general.
Today, Brazil has Jewish newspapers and magazines, such as the Tribune Judaica, Morasha and Shalom. There is also a Jewish television channel called Mosaic.
There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Brazil. In the city of Recife, there is the historic Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, which was the first synagogue in the Americas. The Judaic Archives of Pernambuco are also located in Recife.
In Rio de Janeiro, there are several places of interest such as the ARI synagogue in Botafogo, the Itzhak Rabin Park (inaugurated by his wife Lea), the Lapa District, the Hebraica Club, the Jewish museum, and the Eliezer School. Rua Alfandega in Rio is the center of Rio’s old Jewish neighborhood and is a notable Jewish site for those interested in the history of Jewish life in Brazil.
São Pablo has the Hebraica Club, the Unibes Cultural Center, the current Jewish Quarter, the Old Jewish Quarter, the Kehilat Israel Synagogue (the oldest in the city), and the Judaica Immigration Memorial, among many other sites.
The city of Curitiba has a Holocaust Museum.
Brazil and Israel have maintained full diplomatic relations since 1949. The decisive role of Oswaldo Aranha, head of the Brazilian delegation to the UN for Brazil, in the Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations that approved the plan of partition of Palestine (1947), allowing for the creation of the State of Israel, is still remembered in Israel. In 2010, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visited Israel, the first official visit by a Brazilian Head of State to the country.
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