I begin these words on a United 777 plane that just took off from Rio’s Galeao Airport. To be specific, in seat 22K.
Four places in the world feel like home. Illinois, where I was born and grew up; Israel where I lived for a year and where I’ve returned countless times for work, play, and renewal; New Jersey, where I’ve lived and worked for over a quarter century, and raised a family; and Brazil.
In the early 1980s, as a newly minted rabbi, while classmates headed to jobs throughout North America as assistant rabbis in large synagogues or “solo” rabbis in small ones, I headed south. Way south… to Rio de Janeiro. I had traveled there a few months earlier on a research trip for a Master’s thesis on liberal Judaism in South America. My wonderful host was Roberto Graetz, the Argentinian rabbi of the Associacao Religiosa Israelita (ARI), a large congregation founded in 1944 by German immigrants. After my return north, Roberto wrote to ask if I would be interested in coming to work with him. I was, and I did.
This month I travelled back to Brazil with a wonderful group of Temple B’nai Abraham members. I was eager to introduce them to Jewish Brazil (along with the Brazil of Samba and Carnival, of course!) and they were eager to learn.
We began in Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America. Sao Paulo is an economic engine, and looks it. Busy, busy, busy, and struggling to keep up with the ongoing influx of new residents seeking prosperity. Sao Paulo is also the center of Jewish life in Brazil, with perhaps 70,000 of Brazil’s 125,000 Jews living there. (Jewish population estimates in Brazil are notoriously rough.) We visited and were impressed by several noteworthy Jewish institutions.
The UNIBES is a large social welfare agency which serves a poor, largely non-Jewish population. Its activities include programs for seniors, a free pharmacy, day care, job training, counseling, in all a host of efforts to make the lives of the most unfortunate better, and to help those who can make more of their lives ─ a most difficult task as public education in Brazil’s large cities is poor, and poverty is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.No matter how often I visit UNIBES I am always moved by the commitment by the Jewish community to the community- at -large, especially in a society where civic engagement is hardly the norm.
Later we went to the Hebraica, the incredibly large Jewish “club” to which nearly half of Sao Paulo’s Jews belong. What is a “club?” I suggested to the group that they think of it as a JCC on steroids. Someone later commented I was too understated. That’s entirely possible.
Simply put, in the South American context, a club is a place where people belong to engage in recreational, athletic, cultural, social and educational activities. It is an institution unique to the continent, all the Jewish communities of size have them, often more than one, and none is more magnificent than Sao Paulo’s Hebraica. The beautiful grounds go on forever, there seems to be an endless number of swimming pools and tennis courts and theaters and classrooms, and while Sundays are “the” day, 20,000 present when it’s sunny is not impossible, the Hebraica buzzes morning to night, seven days a week.
For a community spread over a large geographic area – and where traffic is a nightmare – having someplace to come together is critical to reinforcing the strong sense of community among Sao Paulo’s Jews.
While at the Hebraica we listened to remarks from an official of CONIB, the Brazilian Confederation of Jewish Communities. (Unlike the United States, but like other countries, Brazil’s Jewish communities have umbrella organizations which possess a certain official status. CONIB is the national body.) He told us about the current trends among Brazilian Jewry, such as the ongoing urbanization and the overall consolidation of population in Sao Paulo. We asked about Anti-Semitism and attitudes toward Israel. He explained that Brazilians are by and large positively disposed toward Jews and the Jewish community; this is what others said as well and also reflects my own experiences. However, there are anti-Israel tendencies within Brazilian society, especially coming from the political left, and combating those is a CONIB emphasis.
That is a challenge, particularly when we remember that Jews make up less than one tenth of one per cent of the population. On a visit a few years ago to Brasilia, the capital, I was stunned to discover that there is not a single professional of any kind working there on behalf of the Jewish community. Happily, CONIB is exploring establishing a presence there.
Brazilian Jews, on the whole, have strong connections to Israel. There are some particular historical reasons why this is so, but it’s still interesting to note that, proportionately, more of them speak Hebrew, have visited Israel, and have relatives who live there, than Jews in the United States.
Other interesting conversations took place with a few religious leaders. At the Congregacao Israelita Paulista (CIP), the German-founded sister congregation to my ARI, my old friend Rabbi Ruben Sternschein described a synagogue bursting with activity…but noted there were only two non-Orthodox synagogues in such a large Jewish community. Clearly, only a fraction of the potential was involved in religious life. This sense was reinforced over dinner with another old friend, Raul Meyer, who many years ago founded a no longer active North American-style Reform synagogue. To him, the largest challenge the community faces is a professional leadership vacuum. Raul pointed out that Sao Paulo had only five or six liberal rabbis─ and a community of similar size in the United States might easily have five to ten times that.
Partly this stems from Brazilian Jewry’s similarity to Israel in that the majority of Jews might best be called “non-practicing Orthodox.” Though they themselves are not observant, they still have a sense that the only “real” Judaism is Orthodoxy. Raul argues that such a disconnect is not healthy and can sometimes lead to outright discrimination, and I agree. (We heard the details of one particularly egregious case of employment discrimination, which I unfortunately cannot discuss in detail.)
From Sao Paulo we flew to the Iguacu Falls, for a couple of glorious days at one of the world’s most amazing natural attractions. Nothing of Jewish interest to report, except that this group of Jews had a great time, and I especially salute the many (not including me) who took helicopter rides around the falls!
Finally, home, to “my” Rio, which with preparations for the 2016 Olympics in full swing, is even more wildly tumultuous than usual. Among Sugar Loaf, Corcovado and the mountain resort city of Petropolis, home to the royal family’s summer home, there was much to see as tourists. However, our Jewish learning took precedence.
The academic year was just getting underway during our visit to the Eliezer Max School. As I noted above, public education is such, that in much of Brazil if a family can afford food, clothing, and rent, its next expenditure is on a private school, which has helped reinforce a tradition of Jewish day school education in Rio. We were all quite caught up with the warm and friendly feeling at Eliezer Max ─ the unusual name comes from the combination of the names of predecessor schools, Eliezer Steinbarg and Max Nordau. We were all bowled over by the warmth, intelligence and insights─ to say nothing of the English ability!─ of some students who told us their stories. We were also impressed by the commitment of the teachers to provide the very best education they can, just like a good American high school, they brag about where “their” kids go to college, while creating the most solid Jewish identities possible.
It was quite logical after visiting the school, to head to Hillel-Rio and learn about Jewish life among college students.
The busy Hillel House is on the beautiful Lagoa, in the middle of the city. Hillel-Rio focuses on several local universities, which at first struck us as unusual. However, it made sense as we began to understand that Jewish students ─ pretty much all students ─ live at home while they are in school and there is no campus life per se, like we are used to. The goal, therefore, is to make Hillel a Jewish home for all students, regardless of where they study. Hillel-Rio achieves this goal with great success. Hundreds of students participate in social action projects throughout Rio as well as classes and holiday celebrations in the building. Rather than restricting itself to the college age crowd, in fact, Hillel seeks to serve all Jews up to age thirty. I asked the director of the Hillel if some weddings had come out of Hillel activities. She smiled and gave a one word answer: “muitos.” I bet you can figure out what that means.
Friday night, services at the ARI. As it was the end of the summer vacation season, attendance was off…only three hundred or so. Kabbalat Shabbat has always been popular there and the synagogue is well located to catch Jews on their way home from work or school.
I delivered a sermon, in Portuguese. It was fun to see my former congregants stunned that my Portuguese is still pretty good – all right, very good – and my current congregants just kind of look on in disbelief. (I had explained beforehand that my ability to be boring in two languages is exceptional.)
The best part of any trip like this is the chance to meet “real” people, in their homes, and get to know them and their lives first hand. Happily, ARI members hosted us for Shabbat dinner following the service and everybody had an evening that ran late, was a lot of fun, and established ties which everyone on both sides wants to maintain. Robin and I had dinner with Oren and Sylvana Boljover. Oren was the ARI cantor during my time and, though he’s had quite a few adventures in the interim throughout Brazil and Argentina, he’s now back. It was great to get caught up.
A few remained in South America for further adventures, but most headed home from Rio. It was a wonderful, thought provoking and intense trip. We sat as a group in our Rio hotel on the last day and, as we gazed at the beautiful Guanabara Bay, we talked about the meaning of what we had seen.
In many ways, the Brazilian Jews were just like us. They were concerned with Jewish lives that had substance, that were connected to tradition, that were filled with meaning that could be passed on to the next generation. Put simply, we could relate. The big difference is, they live in Brazil. They want the same things for their community that we do, but have to work with the challenges of being a small community away from the geographic mainstream of Jewish life. That makes the enthusiasm, the creativity, and the commitment we found not just impressive, but truly moving.
I reminded our group that all of us are leaders in the Jewish community, in the Temple, elsewhere in communal life, and as donors. This trip was not simply an opportunity to learn about an interesting community, but to gain a new perspective from which to look at our own lives as Jews: even in this far flung, Portuguese-speaking part of the Jewish world, we saw much that could help us be better members of our own community.
And that’s important, because while Brazil is a place I feel wonderfully at home, New Jersey, and Temple B’nai Abraham, is home. And to make it the best Jewish home possible is the shared commitment that unites us.
Time for some rest. Ate logo, see you soon, and a heartfelt Shalom,