With a population of 120,000 in 2017, Brazil has the second largest Jewish community in Latin America, behind Argentina’s and ahead of Mexico’s. Jews are a tiny minority in Brazil, making up only 0.06% of a population that is otherwise 64% Catholic, 20% Protestant, and 16% other.
While Brazil is the fifth largest country in landmass, Jews are clustered mainly in the South and Southeast Regions. According to the 2010 census data of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the two largest Jewish communities were located in São Paulo (with a Jewish population of 44,000) and Rio de Janeiro (22,000). In the Southern Region, Porto Alegre has a Jewish community of 7,000; the Northern Region is home to several smaller but historically older Jewish communities, including the very oldest, Belém do Pará (with a Jewish population of 1,300), as well as Recife (1,300), and Manaus (1,200).
Brazil’s Jewish population is highly educated, with 68% of the community holding university degrees, compared to 27% of the Brazilian population overall. Brazil’s Jews are employed mainly in business, law, medicine, engineering, and the arts. Most own businesses or are self-employed. The IBGE Census shows that 70% of Brazil’s Jews belong to the middle and upper classes. As a group, Jews in Brazil see themselves as a successful segment of society, and face little anti-Semitism.
The Jewish presence in Brazil began as early as 1500, when Portuguese ships first brought Jews, then called “New Christians,” to the land. (For more on this, see Chapter 4, below.) However, Brazil’s 21st century Jewish community is mainly the result of an immigration wave that began in the 19th century and intensified during the 20th century, reaching its peak between the years of 1926 and 1942, when over 50,000 entered the country.
During the 19th century, Moroccan Jews settled in Belém do Pará, Manaus, and other cities located on tributaries on the banks of the Amazon River. In that same period, Ashkenazi Jews from Alsace-Lorraine, as well as some Sephardic Jews, settled in Rio de Janeiro. Later, during the 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe founded communities in the cities of Recife and Salvador. In the South, in the agricultural colonies of Porto Alegre and Curitiba, as well as in major cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro; Ashkenazi Jews from Russia, Poland and Bessarabia established their own distinct communities.
After World War I (1914-1918), with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Sephardic immigration intensified, and many of these new immigrants settled in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Somewhat later, during the 1930s, a wave of Jewish immigrants from Germany to Brazil; most of these immigrants went to live in Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. During the late 1950s Jewish immigrants from Hungary and Egypt settled mainly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. A new wave of Lebanese Jews arrived during the 1970s and settled in São Paulo which was, at the time, the economic center of the country.
In the 21st century, Brazil continues to attract Jews from across Latin America who typically emigrate in times of political or economic crisis.
Characteristics of 20th and 21st Century Immigration
a) Ashkenazi and Sephardic
As of the early 21st century there has been no consensus regarding whether the Ashkenazi or Sephardic community is larger. Amazonian Jews tended to retain a strong Sephardic identity because of their geographical isolation, although this has lessened somewhat in recent decades with the arrival of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews to the region. Ashkenazi culture has tended to be predominant in the Southern Region, mainly in the city of Porto Alegre and in the state capitals.
In the big cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which have the highest concentration of immigrants and largest Jewish communities, there has always been a balance between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. For decades the two groups did not mix, and intermarriage was discouraged—sometimes even prohibited. These divisions eventually disappeared to some extent, but a cultural boundary between Ashkenazis and Sephardis remained into the 21st century.
b) Yiddishists and Zionists
Jewish immigrants to Brazil typically identified as either Yiddishists or Zionists, and it was common for them to join groups that politically and culturally reflected their viewpoint.
Brazil’s Yiddishist societies have included:
- Brazilian Israelite Library Sholem Aleichem, later known as the Sholem Aleichem Association, in Rio de Janeiro: a Yiddishist society founded in 1915 and active into the 21st century;
- Brazilian Israelite Cultural Institute – Casa do Povo (People’s House), in São Paulo, created in 1953 and popular in the 1960s, with a revival in the 2010s. The Institute housed the Brazilian Jewish Art Theatre – TAIb, the Sholem Aleichem School, the I.L. Peretz clubhouse, two choirs (one in Yiddish and the other in Portuguese), offices of the Kinderland summer camp, and the headquarters of the newspaper Nossa Voz (Our Voice);
- Marc Chagall Jewish Cultural Institute, in Porto Alegre, founded in 1985: established to carry on the Yiddishist tradition, this important cultural landmark includes an archive and library that focus on Jewish immigration to the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
Over the years Zionist organizations have included Tiferet Tzion in Rio de Janeiro, which was founded in 1913, as well as organizations in São Paulo, Belém do Pará, and Curitiba. In 1916, David José Perez founded the Zionist newspaper, The Columna. Brazilian Zionists attended the World Zionist Congress for the first time in 1921. In November of 1922, the first Zionist Territorial Conference met in Rio de Janeiro and proposed historic resolutions concerning Jewish education in Brazil.
In 1938, during the Estado Novo (New State) period of President Getúlio Vargas’ dictatorship (1937-45), Zionists were officially forbidden to organize, although they found ways to hide their activities from the authorities.
Over the years tensions arose between Yiddishist and Zionist groups. In the late 1920s, for example, major Jewish community organizations in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other states faced consolidation, and Yiddishists and Zionists clashed over the issue of board representation.
Historical disagreements between Yiddishists and Zionists decreased after the State of Israel was established in 1948. Since that time, the two factions have joined together to show united support for Israel.
c) Early Agricultural Colonies
Brazil organized its first Jewish agricultural communities during the early 20th century; these colonies were modeled after those started by Baron Hirsch in Argentina. These communities were established in the State of Rio Grande do Sul through an agreement between the Jewish Colonization Association and the state government, and were settled by immigrants from Eastern Europe.
In 1904, a group of Jewish families from Bessarabia created the community of Philippson, in southern Brazil; in 1906 they opened Brazil’s first Jewish school.
Jewish immigrants established the Quatro Irmãos (Four Brothers) colony in 1912; it eventually grew to more than 350 families and four settlements, each with its own school that taught both the official curriculum, in addition to a Jewish one. Immigrants received a parcel of land, 25 to 30 hectares depending on family size, as well as a house, agricultural tools, oxen, two cows, a horse and seeds, to be repaid to the company within 10 to 15 years. By 1915 the population of Quatro Irmãos had grown to 1,600 people.
The Quatro Irmãos settlements were eventually abandoned due to a lack of agricultural experience on the part of the residents, geographic isolation, poor land quality, lack of credit, conflict of interest with the Jewish Colonization Association, lack of government support and, finally, a military uprising that occurred in Rio Grande do Sul in 1923, which devastated the region. By then most of the settlers had moved to the city of Porto Alegre or to small communities nearby.
In Santa Maria, where these colonies were established, many of the early pioneers are honored with street names. The old hospital, now listed as a heritage site, houses the Historical Museum and Archive of the Colonies. The Philippson Cemetery was restored and is regularly visited by descendants of the early settlers.
d) Porto Alegre
Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began settling in the state capital of Porto Alegre in 1910. The epicenter of Porto Alegre’s Jewish community was the Bom Fim District, home to synagogues, schools, cultural societies, youth groups, the Yiddish theater, libraries, aid organizations, stores, and, beginning in 1915, the first Brazilian Jewish newspaper published in Yiddish, Di Menshhait.
The Porto Alegre Jewish community is noteworthy for its emblematic fight against an anti-Jewish movement. In 1989 the city faced an onslaught of anti-Semitic books published by the Revisão (Revision) publishing house, owned by Siegfried Ellwanger. In response, a group known as the Movement for Justice Human Rights, together with Jewish activists, formed the People’s Movement against Racism (MOPAR) to fight Ellwanger’s racism in particular, and anti-Semitism more broadly.
MOPAR filed a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, addressing the questions: 1) Is anti-Semitism racism? and 2) Does freedom of expression include the freedom to disseminate hate-filled writings? The Supreme Court concluded that anti-Semitism is a racist practice and that freedom of expression does not include the right to incite racism. It also pointed out that the denial of historical facts, such as the Holocaust, supported by assertions about the alleged inferiority and exclusion of the Jewish people, constitutes incitement to discrimination. The court concluded that the spread of discriminatory ideas against a people, in published format, constitutes racism, and is not an expression of intellectual freedom. In 2004, Ellwanger was sentenced for the crimes of racism and anti-Semitism, establishing an important legal precedent.
e) Rio de Janeiro
While Jews had been present in Rio de Janeiro since the 16th and 17th centuries, Brazil’s second largest Jewish community really started to grow in the mid-19th century. After Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822, and with the relative religious freedom granted by its Constitution of 1824, Jews began arriving in greater numbers in Rio de Janeiro, then the country’s capital.
The Shel Guemilut Hassadim Union was the first Jewish institution founded in Rio de Janeiro; it was established between 1840 and 1850 by Moroccan Jews who migrated from Belém. The institution remained open through the 21st century, supported by Sephardic Jews, descendants of Moroccans, Turks, and Egyptians.
The 20th century saw increased Jewish immigration to Rio de Janeiro. From 1910 to 1930 Jews arrived from Russia, Poland, and Romania and formed a Jewish neighborhood in the district of Praça Onze. This neighborhood existed until the 1940s, when the area underwent construction and renovations.
Ashkenazi Jews lived in the Praça Onze district with Italian and Portuguese immigrants, among others, including former slaves who came from the state of Bahia. Against this diverse backdrop, Praça Onze developed as a cradle of Jewish culture. It was there that a Jewish press emerged in Brazil, first in Yiddish and then in Portuguese. Cultural, social, and charitable associations such as the Froien Farain and the Wizo were founded, along with synagogues and Jewish schools. Praça Onze was a political hotbed and offered formal and informal groups for Jews throughout the political spectrum, including roiters (progressives), Yiddishists, and Zionists.
Starting in the 1930s, Syrian-Lebanese Jewish immigrants settled on Alfandega Street, in a neighborhood which became known as Saara, where they lived alongside Orthodox Christians and immigrants from other Arab countries.
Initially, the Sephardic immigrants made their living as wholesale suppliers, while the Ashkenazi immigrants tended to work as street vendors. Beginning in the 1920s Jews worked as artisans and merchants, in shops, factories, and furniture businesses. With their economic and social rise during the 1930s, Jews left the city center and built synagogues and institutions in new neighborhoods. Initially it was mainly Ashkenazi Jews who moved to the wealthier neighborhood of Tijuca, but in time they were joined by Sephardic Jews.
The Great Temple in downtown Rio was founded in 1933; as of 2017 it remains open for the High Holidays. The Israeli Bene Sidon Association, founded in 1913 by a small group of Lebanese immigrants in the downtown area, has had its headquarters in the Tijuca neighborhood and has been active since 1954.
During the second half of the 20th century Rio’s Jews increasingly moved to districts in the south. Copacabana established a Jewish presence with its Orthodox synagogue, Beit Yaacov, which was founded in 1942. With growing Jewish economic prosperity and the arrival of Egyptian Jewish immigrants in the 1950s, Ipanema, and Leblon also became established Jewish centers, complete with schools, kosher food stores, and synagogues.
As of 2017, Rio de Janeiro’s Jewish population was 22,000, with 24 active synagogues, all Orthodox, with two exceptions: the Israeli Religious Association (ARI) and the Brazilian Jewish Congregation (CJB). Additionally, Rio had five functioning Jewish schools: two religious (TTH Bar Ilan and Cheder Beit Menachem) and three secular (A. Liessin, Eliezer Steinbarg-Max Nordau, and ORT). These schools are concentrated in the south zone, with branches in the Tijuca and Barra da Tijuca neighborhoods.
f) São Paulo
São Paulo became a major destination for Jews and other immigrants at the turn of the 20th century because of the commercial and financial opportunities associated with the Port of Santos. Waves of immigration began during the 1910s, with Jews arriving from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Bessarabia. Immigrants ascended the mountain by train and disembarked at Estação da Luz Station, in the Bom Retiro District; this area had previously been settled by Italian and Spanish immigrants but came to be known as the Jewish quarter of São Paulo. Starting during the 1920s, Sephardic Jews started to settle in the neighborhood of Mooca. There they founded two synagogues, one for Jews from Sidon, and the other for those from Beirut.
The São Paulo community organized itself into aid societies to help new arrivals find work, housing, and clothing. In 1915, the Ezra was founded, followed by Linat Tzedek, the Children’s Home, Lar das Crianças, and the Gota de Leite Project (Milk Drop). These institutions were combined in 1976 to form the Brazilian Israeli Union of Social Welfare (UNIBES), headquartered in the Bom Retiro district, which continues to serve elderly Jewish clients, as well as the needy among the neighboring non-Jewish population.
São Paulo’s Jews eventually spread to the central and affluent districts of the city and it became necessary to build a new synagogue. The Beth El Temple, constructed between 1927 and 1932 in the Byzantine style, followed Ashkenazi tradition but was open to rabbis from various backgrounds. Beth El had its heyday during the 1960s. In the early 2000s a decision was made to convert Beth El into the Jewish Museum of São Paulo. When complete, the museum will incorporate the Jewish Brazilian Historical Archive and will be the largest Jewish museum in Latin America.
During the 1930’s and 1940s the Higienopolis District became a Jewish area. First came the Sephardic immigrants, then the Ashkenazi. By 2017 the district had 11 synagogues, a yeshiva, five Jewish schools, kosher restaurants, kosher catering services, butchers, bakeries, grocery products, a Jewish publisher, and a bookstore. In 2017 Higienópolis was home to the widest range of Jewish ethnic groups in São Paulo.
Until the 1950-60s, São Paulo’s Jewish life was centered in the district of Bom Retiro, where the Ashkenazi community continued to live and work. The neighborhood was then home to many Jewish institutions, including the Zionist youth movements Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Ichud Habonim, and Bnei Akiva; Zionist, Orthodox and Yiddishist schools; the chevra kadisha; the Zionist Unified Organization office; the Popular Credit Union; and countless synagogues and Jewish charities. Syrian and Lebanese Jews, or “Turks”, as they were called, established their businesses in the region of 25 de Março Street and lived alongside their Christian neighbors for many decades.
The next wave of Jewish immigrants came from Aleppo; under the leadership of Jacob Elie Safra, they founded the Paulista Sephardic Congregation in 1964. Safra died before the synagogue could be completed, and it was later named Beit Yaacov in his memory. In time, the community launched religious, educational, and cultural projects that would result in the development of two synagogues, a council of rabbis, the youth movement Netzach, Morasha magazine, the Morasha Institute of Culture, and the Beit Yaacov School, the only Jewish school providing bilingual, English/Portuguese education in Brazil.
The Albert Einstein Hospital was founded in 1955 and quickly recognized as the most modern private hospital in Latin America. It has continued to provide care to Brazilians into the 21st century.
In 1969 the Jewish Federation of the State of São Paulo, together with a committee of teachers, founded the University of São Paulo (USP) Jewish Studies Center, in order to teach Jewish culture and ethics within academia and society at large. A graduate program in Hebrew Language, Literature, and Jewish Culture was launched within the department in 1989.
Within two centuries of immigration, São Paulo’s Jewish residents were able to successfully establish themselves, learn the language, build homes for their families, progress economically, and integrate into Brazilian culture.
In spite of this progress, however, between 1964 and 1985, when the country was under a military dictatorship, 10 Jewish militants were killed. In 1975 Vladimir Herzog, a news director at TV Cultura, the São Paulo state public network, was accused of being a communist militant. He was tortured and killed in army custody, although the official cause of death was listed as “suicide by hanging.” Henry Sobel, an American rabbi and human rights activist, spoke out against Herzog’s murder. With the help of the Archbishop of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, Sobel helped organize a large protest at the Sé Cathedral, gathering Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Umbandist religious leaders, family and friends, politicians, and trade unionists to protest of the Brazilian military government. Historians later identified this event as the beginning of the Brazilian re-democratization process. Sobel later became the rabbi of the Jewish Congregation of São Paulo (CIP).
g) The Amazon Region: Belém and Manaus
Jewish immigrants began arriving in Belém do Para, located in the Amazon region of Brazil, in 1810. The first to arrive were men; they worked in riverside towns on the various tributaries of the Amazon River as regatões (river traders) or mascates (hawkers). These workers eventually brought over their families. In 1824, the Belém Jewish community founded its first synagogue, Eshel Avraham, and in 1835 a second synagogue was built, Shaar Ha Shamaim. Around this time there were an estimated 300 Jewish families living in the community.
With the growth of the rubber industry between 1860 and 1910, an increased number of Moroccan Jews immigrated to Belém and Manaus. In this second phase of immigration, it is estimated that over 700 families arrived in the region.
Geographic isolation, Moroccan culture, the limited influence from other Jewish groups, and cultural exchange with the local population have all combined to make the Amazon Jewish community unique among Brazilian Diaspora Jewish communities. The customs and traditions of Morocco remained strong in this region; even when Ashkenazi immigrants subsequently during the interwar period, they tended to adapt their customs to fit in with Moroccan Jewish customs.
As of 2017 the Belém Jewish community had 1,300 members, and was home to a number of institutions, clubs, and youth movements, as well as two Orthodox synagogues.
21st Century Religious Trends
For analytical purposes, the Jewish religious scene in Brazil may be divided into two stages: the early years of immigration until the 1970s, and from 1980 onwards. In the early years of Jewish settlement, Jews organized themselves into groups according to when they arrived. The two largest communities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, saw Ashkenazi immigrants arrive first, followed by Sephardic immigrants. Within these large groups, ethnic, national, and linguistic subgroups organized themselves and formed minyanim according to their own traditions, languages, and liturgies. Thus, one could find separate synagogues representing members from Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bessarabia, Turkey, Egypt, Sidon, and Beirut. By the third generation, however, synagogues began to empty, mainly because of migration to other neighborhoods, but also because the younger generation no longer identified with the older style of the service.
By the 1980s Brazil’s synagogues were largely empty, and leaders were needed who could appeal to the youth; there was a large space to fill, both physically and spiritually. At that point, the Brazilian Jewish scene became something of a battleground between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements.
The Chabad-Lubavitch Movement, with its vast international experience, began to spread Orthodox discourse and practice throughout Brazil. Chabad teachers and rabbis went into localities where there were Jewish residents but no Jewish life. By revitalizing or establishing synagogues in Jewish neighborhoods, Chabad filled the void that had developed after one or two generations, creating an Orthodox network across Brazil.
The Sephardic community, which usually was more observant, supported the spread of Orthodox beliefs and practices. They promoted the development of research centers such as Yeshiva Or Israel on the outskirts of São Paulo in order to train the next generation of Orthodox rabbis and Jewish professionals.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s non-Orthodox community also tried to expand its influence. Liberal Judaism was established in Brazil during the 1930s and 1940s, and was mostly active in the state capitals. The community believed in having men and women pray together, in celebrating bat mitzvahs for girls, and conducting the liturgy partly in Portuguese.
Brazil’s first liberal synagogue, the Israeli Brazilian Society (SIBRA) was founded in Porto Alegre in August 1936. The Jewish Congregation of São Paulo (CIP) was founded in October 1936, with Rabbi Dr. Fritz Pinkuss at the helm for over 50 years, after which he was succeeded by Rabbi Sobel. In Rio de Janeiro, the Israeli Religious Association (ARI) was founded in 1942, with Rabbi Dr. Heinrich Lemle as its leader. These three synagogues, led by Brazilian or Latin American rabbis who trained in Conservative or Reform seminaries in the U.S. and in Israel, became the pillars of non-Orthodox Judaism in Brazil. Additionally, the Jewish Congregation of Brazil (CJB), in Rio de Janeiro and the Shalom Community, in São Paulo are two newer liberal synagogues.
Nature and Character of the Brazilian Jewish Community and Conib
a) Relationship of Brazilian Jews with non-Jews
Jewish organizations have undertaken many public health projects, including supporting the Itinga project in the Jequitinhonha Valley of Minas Gerais; aiding the fight against dengue fever in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo; aiding flood victims in various states; and supporting the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein mission to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. It is important to note that these Jewish social service efforts mainly assist non-Jews.
b) Political Activities
Confederação Israelita do Brasil (Conib) is the not-for-profit organization that officially represents the Brazilian Jewish community. Conib maintains a close relationship with Brazilian officials, including presidents of the Republic, ministers, senators, representatives, and Supreme Court judges.
Conib has also been active in combatting terrorism in Brazil. In March 2016, the president of Brazil approved the country’s first anti-terrorism law. Conib strongly supported this legislation, meeting with congressional representatives and federal authorities many times to express the need for such legislation, and writing op-eds that were published in influential newspapers and magazines. A few days ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Police used the new law to arrest 12 terrorism suspects.
Conib also works to strengthen relations between the governments of Brazil and Israel. During the Gaza conflict in 2014, when Brazil recalled its ambassador to Israel, Conib intervened and mediated between the two governments, de-escalating the crisis. With the aim of strengthening relations between the two countries, Conib’s board keeps in contact with Israeli leaders and organizes trips for Brazilian parliamentarians to visit Israel.
c) Inter-Religious Dialogue
For decades, Jews and Catholics have lived side by side in Brazil, and Conib works hard to maintain positive relations and promote interfaith dialogue. Conib presidents were received at the Vatican by Popes Benedict VVII and Pope Francis in 2012, 2014, and 2015. In addition, in 2014, in the Cathedral of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Scherer, celebrated Brazil’s first mass in honor of the memory of Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Conib also works to promote dialogue with Muslims.
d) Jewish Education
In 2016 Conib organized the Second National Congress of Jewish Schools, in São Paulo. Directors and coordinators of 14 Jewish schools, supplementary schools, youth movements, and synagogues from various Brazilian states attended the conference, representing 10,000 students. Highlights of the meeting included the launch of the Jewish Education Platform in Brazil for teacher training, in partnership with the Samuel Klein Institute and the Pincus Fund for Education.
Conib also worked with the Ministry of Culture in 2016 to include the Holocaust and the Inquisition in the National Basic Curriculum.
e) Fight Against Anti-Semitism and Racism
Since 2006, Conib has promoted an annual International Day in Memory of Holocaust Victims. Ceremonies have included the president of Brazil, state governors, and other government officials.
Conib has engaged in various activities to fight anti-Semitism in Brazil, including monitoring the BDS movement and opposing their campaign against the State of Israel, fighting the publication of “Mein Kampf,” and working to make sure that Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not receive an official welcome at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio.
Conib is also involved in federal projects to combat racism on the web and to promote religious freedom. The Jewish community has participated, since 2003, in the National Council for the Promotion of Racial Equality, and works with two partners, Zumbi dos Palmares University and the Commission to Combat against Religious Intolerance, in the fight against racial discrimination
Finally, Conib is engaged in promoting Jewish cultural awareness throughout Brazilian society. In 2012, Conib created the Anne Frank Network of public schools, whose students compete in a yearly essay contest, that receives prominent media attention.
f) Brazilian Jews’ Contribution to Brazil
Cadernos Conib (Conib Magazine) is a publication that reflects the diversity of Jewish opinions and Jewish involvement throughout Brazilian life. The first edition addressed ecological issues and the development of the Amazon, including the 200 year-long history of Jewish immigration to that region. The second edition analyzed Jewish contributions to the growth of democracy in Brazil since the second half of the 20th century. The third edition analysed the challenges of education in Brazil and the prospects for Jewish education. The publication is available for download on the Conib website, which serves as the major Portuguese-language Jewish portal.
g) Challenges Faced by the Community
Top concerns for the Brazilian Jewish community include the challenging politics of the Middle East and the emergence of anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, and the difficulty of sustaining Jewish community life, even in the large cities.
Jewish Presence in Colonial Brazil
Jews have played a role in Brazil ever since its discovery in 1500. In Portugal, beginning in the 15th century, Jews were involved in the art and science of navigation, and the earliest Portuguese sailing ships to reach Brazil carried New Christians: Jews who had been expelled from Portugal in 1496 and chose to take refuge in Brazil, even after having been forced to convert, because they believed that in Brazil they would be safe from persecution by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. In fact, while the Inquisition Tribunal did not settle permanently in colonial Brazil, it sent “visitations,” which persecuted anyone involved in “Judaizing” practices, although the activities of the Inquisition in Brazil were less systematic and frequent than in Portugal.
Between 1500 and 1822, Brazil was the destination for thousands of New Christians. They did not create organized communities but settled in the northeast, in the states of Pernambuco and Bahia, and worked mainly as sugarcane mills owners, traders, or sugar exporters. In 1630, the Dutch invaded Brazil and Count Maurice of Nassau began the construction of what would become the city of Recife. The East India Company, which explored over 120 existing sugar mills in Pernambuco state, was made up of many Dutch Jews. The meeting between them and the New Christians of Pernambuco, under the new conditions of religious freedom provided by the Dutch government, allowed for the emergence, in Recife, of the first organized Jewish community in the Americas and the largest of its time.
The first synagogue in the New World, the Kahal Zur Israel, was built during the period of Dutch control (1630-1654). A second synagogue, Magen Abraham, had as its founding rabbi the Portuguese-Dutch Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), who arrived in Recife in 1641 and stayed for 13 years. However, in 1654 Brazil was reconquered by the Portuguese, and freedom of worship was revoked. Many Dutch Jews left for North America and helped found New Amsterdam, later renamed New York.
During the 20th century the Jewish community of Recife was formed mainly by immigrants from Eastern Europe. These Ashkenazi Jews created their first synagogue in 1926, and a school, the Yiddish Schul. Sephardic immigrants joined the existing community during the 1930s and constructed their own synagogue, which was open until the 1960s.
In 1992 the Jewish Historical Archive of Pernambuco was founded in the building of the old synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Zur Israel, on the street once known as Rua dos Judeus (Street of the Jews). The synagogue was restored and reopened on March 18, 2002. Since 2009, March 18 has been recognized as the National Day of Jewish immigration.
Notable Brazilian Jews
Numerous members of Brazil’s Jewish community became prominent in politics, the arts, culture, economics, finance, and education. The surnames of prominent families who immigrated to Brazil from Alsace-Lorraine, Prussia, and the Ukraine during the late 19th century and who made significant contributions include Klabin, Lafer, Feffer and Mindlin.
Prominent individuals include:
Luís Roberto Barroso (Vassouras, 1958) lawyer, professor and judge (“Ministro”) on the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF). Professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro and Universidade de Brasília, Barroso is a well-known attorney who has defended cases involving controversial issues, such as embryonic stem cell research, the legal equivalence of gay marriage and traditional stable unions, pregnancy termination for anencephalic fetuses, and the defense of nepotism in the Judiciary.
Samuel Isaac Benchimol (Manaus 1923-2002), economist, scientist, and teacher. Benchimol was a leading expert on the Amazon and the author of several works on the region. In his honor, the Brazilian government instituted the Benchimol Prize for contributions to the understanding of the Amazon Region.
Eva Alterman Blay (São Paulo, 1937), sociologist, pioneer of the women’s rights movement in Brazil and founder of the Women’s Studies Center at the University of São Paulo. In 1985, she implemented the Bureau of Women’s Defense Police against domestic violence, a model replicated in throughout Latin America.
Leon Feffer (Ukraine 1902 – São Paulo 1999), businessman who came to Brazil in 1920. In the late 1930s, Feffer created the paper mill, Suzano Papeis e Celulose, which became a major company. He is remembered as an eminent figure in the community, the first to hold the post of honorary consul of Israel, 1956-1981.
Max Feffer (São Paulo, 1926-2001), son of Leon Feffer (above), an entrepreneur who also served as Secretary of Culture and the Environment of the State of São Paulo. He developed alternative methods of pulp production that revolutionized Brazil’s paper industry.
Luiz Fux (Rio de Janeiro, 1953), lawyer, professor and judge on the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF). Fux is a much-honored Professor at the Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro, known for outstanding activity in human rights.
José Goldemberg (Rio Grande do Sul, 1928), a physicist and professor who held executive positions at the state and national levels as Secretary of Science and Technology, Minister of Education, and Secretary of Environment. He chairs the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
Elie Horn (Aleppo 1944), businessman and philanthropist. In 1978, he founded what became the second largest construction company in Brazil. A major supporter of Jewish schools, synagogues, cultural and social organizations, he was the first Brazilian to join The Giving Pledge, donating 60% of his fortune.
Israel Klabin (Rio de Janeiro 1926), engineer, environmentalist, and politician, whoheaded Brazil’s largest paper company. He served as mayor of Rio de Janeiro and later moved into environmental causes, chairing the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development.
Samuel Klein (Poland 1923 – São Paulo 2014), founder of the department store chain, Casas Bahia. Klein was an Auschwitz survivor who started as a peddler selling bedding. By the 2000s, Casa Bahia had 560 stores and the largest distribution warehouse in Latin America.
Celso Lafer (São Paulo, 1941), two-time former foreign minister (1992 and 2001-02) and former commerce minister (1999), as well Brazil’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Lafer teaches at the University of São Paulo as a professor of Philosophy of Law.
Horácio Lafer (1900-1965), the son of Lithuanian Jews, diplomat, politician, and businessman. In 1934, Lafer represented Brazil in the League of Nations; in 1951, he served as Finance Minister under President Getúlio Vargas and as Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Juscelino Kubitschek.
Jaime Lerner (Curitiba, 1937), son of Jewish immigrants from Lodz, Poland, city planner, architect, mayor, and governor A visionary in urban planning, Lerner designed Brazil’s first street for pedestrian-only use and also created a public transportation system that became an inspiration in Brazil and throughout the world.
Clarice Lispector (Ukraine 1920 – Rio de Janeiro, 1977), award-winning writer and journalist, author of novels, short stories, and essays. Her work is internationally acclaimed, with 200 translations in over ten languages, from Czech to Japanese. She is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century.
Roberto Burle Marx (São Paulo 1909 – Rio de Janeiro 1994), landscape architect known in Brazil and around the world for his use of native vegetation, sinuous shapes, and contemplative spaces. Some of his many landscape design projects include the Flamengo Park, Rio de Janeiro; the Monumental Axis, Brasilia; and the Embassy of Brazil, Washington DC.
José Ephim Mindlin (São Paulo, 1914 – São Paulo, 2010), reporter, lawyer, entrepreneur, writer, and bibliophile. Son of Jews from Odessa, he practiced law before founding the Metal Leve Company, which later became a powerhouse in the auto parts sector in Brazil. After leaving the company, Mindlin collected rare books, eventually donating his 40,000-volume collection to the University of São Paulo.
Rabbi Dr. Fritz Pinkuss (Germany 1905 – São Paulo 1994), founder of the Jewish Congregation of São Paulo, CIP, in 1936, in the tradition of German Liberal Judaism. He inaugurated the Department of Oriental Languages at the University of São Paulo and later co-founded the Jewish Studies Center of the University.
Joseph Safra (Aleppo 1938), along with brothers Edmond and Moïse, founded the Banco Safra and eventually diversified into cellulose, telephony, and cattle. The Safra Foundation supports significant cultural activities, social and educational projects, often beyond the borders of the Jewish community.
Moacyr Scliar (Porto Alegre, 1937 – 2011), prolific writer of newspaper articles, short stories, novels, essays, and children’s books; also a public health physician. Scliar published over 70 books, translated into 12 languages. His writings focus on the Jewish immigration to Brazil and much more.
Lasar Segall (Lithuania, 1891-São Paulo 1957), painter, designer, engraver and sculptor, and master of Expressionism. Segall created the Society of Modern Art of São Paulo. Museum Lasar Segall was established in the house where the artist lived and worked.
Arão Steinbruch (Santa Maria, 1917 – Rio de Janeiro, 1992), a lawyer and politician who became known as an advocate for workers’ rights and unions. Steinbruch also served as senator from the state of Rio de Janeiro.
Zbigniew Marian Ziembinski (Wieliczka, 1908 – Rio de Janeiro, 1978), a theater, film and television actor and director; considered to be one of the founders of the modern Brazilian theater.
AVIGDOR, Renée. Judeus, Sinagogas e rabinos: O judaísmo de São Paulo em Mudança. Doctoral thesis, USP. 2010.
BARTEL, Carlos Eduardo. Sionismo e Progressismo, dois projetos para o judaísmo brasileiro. Revista do Instituto Cultural Marc Chagal v.2.n.2. (jul-dec-2010).
FALBEL, Nachman. Judeus no Brasil, Estudos e Notas. Edusp. 2008.
LINS, Wagner. Estrela Minguante, Memória e ressignificação do judaísmo no interior do Estado do Pará. Master’s dissertation. USP.2004
RIBEIRO, Paula. Cultura, memória e vida urbana, judeus na Praça Onze (1920-1980). Doctoral thesis, PUC SP. 2008
SANTOS, Dos Maria Madalena. A apropriação Simbólica do espaço. O caso dos judeus de Porto Alegre, Brazil. University of Barcelona. May, 2014.