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Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil
Cláudia Andréa Prata Ferreira é Professora Doutora - Categoria: Associado III - do Setor de Língua e Literatura Hebraicas do Departamento de Letras Orientais e Eslavas da Faculdade de Letras da UFRJ.

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sábado, 12 de julho de 2008

Brazil’s Jews thrive despite the isolation

by Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin
Rabbi Clifford M. Kulwin is the religious leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston.
New Jersey Jewish News, em 13/03/2008.

Twenty-five years ago this spring, with ordination a few months off and me trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life, I came home to find a letter with a Rio de Janeiro postmark. The writer was a rabbi there who had been my kind host many months earlier on a South American research trip I had made, preparing my master’s thesis. He was overworked, the rabbi wrote, the synagogue had grown too big for him, and would I be interested in heading 5,000 miles south to be his colleague?

That sounds crazy, I thought to myself: I don’t speak the language, I know nothing about the culture, and the nearest friend or relative would be a continent away. Needless to say, I wrote back that very night to say that I loved the idea and when would I start?

A few weeks ago, I returned to Brazil with a group of 30 congregants on a mission led by Allen and Beth Levithan and jointly sponsored by Temple B’nai Abraham and United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. While I was excited to return, excited to show my wife and friends this place that had been so important to me, I was also a bit scared. A few years ago, for the first time in two decades, I had visited the house in which I had grown up in Champaign, Ill. It had shrunk considerably. Did something similar await on this trip?

Happily, my worries were unfounded. Rio was still the most beautiful city in the world, alive and vibrant, and with a Jewish community as warm, committed, and connected as any other. What was different, however, was me. Since my days as a rabbi in Rio I had gained years of experience in the academic world, spent more than a decade as a globe-trotting official in an international Jewish agency, and was nearing completion of my ninth year as a congregational rabbi in New Jersey. From that mature perspective I was able to appreciate this amazing Jewish community all the more.

Being Jewish in Brazil is challenging. There are only 100,000 Jews in the entire country, less than in just the northern half of New Jersey. Jews are less than 0.1 percent of the population, compared to 2.5 percent in the United States.

Those 100,000 Jews feel distant from the rest of the Jewish world and they are. Brazil sits well beyond the arc of mainstream Jewry that swings from North America, passing through Europe, and ending in Israel. El Al has no South American destinations, and no South American airline flies to Israel. Getting to Israel from anywhere on the continent is a lengthy, expensive process.

And that sense of isolation is intensified by language. Brazilian Jews speak Portuguese — a language spoken by virtually no other Jews in the world. Jewish periodicals, liturgy, and educational materials are widely available in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, even Spanish. Translating or producing original Portuguese works, for such a small potential audience, adds yet another level of expense and complication to being Jewish in this part of the world.

Somehow these challenges made the sights we saw all the more meaningful.

At Friday night services at my old synagogue, the Associacao Religiosa Israelita, or ARI, I gave a sermon (in Portuguese still good enough to pass for a native, thank you very much) to a packed house. While quite a few old friends came, I happily admit that the attendance had nothing to do with me. The shul is generally full, and a large chunk of those who come to pray are young. There are not enough synagogues and not enough rabbis in the country, but where Jews have the opportunity to come together to pray…they do. Our whole group found our experience of Brazilian worship more than enjoyable…it was positively uplifting.

It was also uplifting to visit an amazing day school, the Eliezer Max, formed by the merger of two predecessor schools. With a physical facility of which any urban school would be proud, its teaching staff and board leadership were obviously committed to ensuring that the children had superior general and Jewish education. We made Shabbat with a delightful first-grade class and visited at lunch with high school seniors speaking excellent English.

And also uplifting was a presentation by the recent founder, in Rio, of Brazil’s first Hillel. A woman of staggering charisma, Marcia Kelner Polisuk explained that her efforts represented the first time the Brazilian Jewish community had reached out in an organized fashion to university students and young adults, and was doing so to great effect. She brought several Hillel activists with her, and as these young people shared their stories of often assimilated backgrounds, and explained how local activities and Birthright Israel had made such a difference in their lives, it was hard for us not to feel we were present at the beginning of something large and important.

While Rio is “my” city, we had important and impressive experiences in Sao Paulo as well. We visited the Hebraica Club, an institution I have described as a JCC on steroids, and which claims more than 25,000 individual members, every one of whom seemed to be present on the sunny Sunday afternoon we visited. We were wowed by the building and the dynamic leadership of the Centro da Cultura Judaica, a new and internationally groundbreaking institution whose purpose is to educate Brazil at large about Israel, Jews and Judaism.

(And I must add that our visit was immeasurably enhanced by the opportunity to share much of it with the American ambassador and his wife, Cliff and Barbara Sobel, Temple B’nai Abraham members, and MetroWest leaders.)

We saw much that was good and exciting, though candor demands I also admit that it often takes place against a backdrop that can be uncertain. Rio’s Jewish population seems to be diminishing as economic forces make commercial powerhouse Sao Paulo more and more the place for professional and personal opportunity. And violence is still a key concern for all who live in this country.

But even with that, the creativity, the commitment, and the sheer determination of local Jews was utterly moving. The ARI was a synagogue in which we could see ourselves worshipping, the Eliezer Max a school where we could see ourselves sending our children, the Hebraica a place where we could see ourselves feeling an integral part of a community. As Jews, we realized this could easily be a community of which we would enjoy being a part. As Jews, our world had just gotten quite a bit smaller.

And that sense of isolation is intensified by language. Brazilian Jews speak Portuguese — a language spoken by virtually no other Jews in the world. Jewish periodicals, liturgy, and educational materials are widely available in Hebrew, English, Russian, French, even Spanish. Translating or producing original Portuguese works, for such a small potential audience, adds yet another level of expense and complication to being Jewish in this part of the world.

Somehow these challenges made the sights we saw all the more meaningful.

At Friday night services at my old synagogue, the Associacao Religiosa Israelita, or ARI, I gave a sermon (in Portuguese still good enough to pass for a native, thank you very much) to a packed house. While quite a few old friends came, I happily admit that the attendance had nothing to do with me. The shul is generally full, and a large chunk of those who come to pray are young. There are not enough synagogues and not enough rabbis in the country, but where Jews have the opportunity to come together to pray…they do. Our whole group found our experience of Brazilian worship more than enjoyable…it was positively uplifting.

It was also uplifting to visit an amazing day school, the Eliezer Max, formed by the merger of two predecessor schools. With a physical facility of which any urban school would be proud, its teaching staff and board leadership were obviously committed to ensuring that the children had superior general and Jewish education. We made Shabbat with a delightful first-grade class and visited at lunch with high school seniors speaking excellent English.

And also uplifting was a presentation by the recent founder, in Rio, of Brazil’s first Hillel. A woman of staggering charisma, Marcia Kelner Polisuk explained that her efforts represented the first time the Brazilian Jewish community had reached out in an organized fashion to university students and young adults, and was doing so to great effect. She brought several Hillel activists with her, and as these young people shared their stories of often assimilated backgrounds, and explained how local activities and Birthright Israel had made such a difference in their lives, it was hard for us not to feel we were present at the beginning of something large and important.

While Rio is “my” city, we had important and impressive experiences in Sao Paulo as well. We visited the Hebraica Club, an institution I have described as a JCC on steroids, and which claims more than 25,000 individual members, every one of whom seemed to be present on the sunny Sunday afternoon we visited. We were wowed by the building and the dynamic leadership of the Centro da Cultura Judaica, a new and internationally groundbreaking institution whose purpose is to educate Brazil at large about Israel, Jews and Judaism.

(And I must add that our visit was immeasurably enhanced by the opportunity to share much of it with the American ambassador and his wife, Cliff and Barbara Sobel, Temple B’nai Abraham members, and MetroWest leaders.)

We saw much that was good and exciting, though candor demands I also admit that it often takes place against a backdrop that can be uncertain. Rio’s Jewish population seems to be diminishing as economic forces make commercial powerhouse Sao Paulo more and more the place for professional and personal opportunity. And violence is still a key concern for all who live in this country.

But even with that, the creativity, the commitment, and the sheer determination of local Jews was utterly moving. The ARI was a synagogue in which we could see ourselves worshipping, the Eliezer Max a school where we could see ourselves sending our children, the Hebraica a place where we could see ourselves feeling an integral part of a community. As Jews, we realized this could easily be a community of which we would enjoy being a part. As Jews, our world had just gotten quite a bit smaller.

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