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.