Practicing Judaism in Rio and Brazil

By Fiona Hurrell, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Judaism has been practiced in Brazil since as far back as the 16th century according to historical reports, however in a predominantly Catholic country the Jewish faith is relatively modest outside of its own community. As part of a religious awareness campaign leading up to the Catholic World Youth Day in July, we explore Judaism in Brazil.

Guests attend a Jewish Wedding at Israelita Beth El Synagogue in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, News.

Guests attend a Jewish Wedding at Israelita Beth El Synagogue in Copacabana, internet image recreation.

According to the IBGE 2010 Census there are 107,000 Jewish citizens in Brazil, placing it as the ninth largest national population behind Germany and ahead of Australia. This represents about 0.05 percent of the population, compared to the roughly 75 percent Catholic and 0.02 Muslims in the country.

Reports put Jewish immigrants first arriving in Brazil from Europe to escape institutional religious persecution. They built their own synagogue in Recife in 1636, which became the first to be constructed in the Americas by many accounts.

After the first Brazilian constitution was granted in 1824, the doors were opened for more immigration, and gradually Jewish transplants began to arrive from places further afield such as Morocco and other African countries. Later, as anti-Semitic tensions increased in Europe during the Nazi regime, Brazil proved an attractive destination for many more Jewish refugees.

In 1941 Dr. Heinrich Lemle from Frankfurt came to Rio de Janeiro to found a synagogue for the German refugees called the Associação Religiosa Israelita, which, today, serves a thousand families and paved the way for more synagogues to be built in the city.

Rabbi Eliezer Stauber is from the Kehilat Yaacov Orthodox synagogue of Copacabana. He tells The Rio Times, “Most of the Jews who live in Brazil are descended from European Jews and a lot of Brazilians likely have Jewish ancestry.”

Within Brazil the largest Jewish population is reportedly in São Paulo with 37,000, followed by 30,000 in Rio de Janeiro. According to Rabbi Stauber, “A lot of Jewish people need to live close to industry. São Paulo is rich in industry so therefore it is the obvious choice for most Jewish settlers.”

A selection of Menorahs for sale at Tradition in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News.

A selection of Menorahs for sale at Tradition in Ipanema, photo by Fiona Hurrell.

He goes on to add, “In the state of Rio there are twenty synagogues. For me, as a Rabbi, this is not enough – not like in Israel. I came from Israel to spend two years in Rio and have ended up staying thirty! It seems my mission is here.”

The Jewish community in Rio may be relatively small, but it is thriving. Kosher shops and restaurants such as Chai delli in Copacabana, run by long-time Jewish Brazilians, and Guttesen in Leblon offers its own versions of traditional Jewish delicacies.

Furthermore, Jewish heritage is preserved thanks to the existence of the Midrash Centro Cultural, the Jewish community’s cultural center in Leblon, which boasts a beautiful façade depicting a collage of Hebrew letters. It offers concerts, lectures and courses that are open to anyone.

Jewish Carioca, Dania Schvartz has run her shop Tradition in Ipanema for twelve years, selling a variety of religious products from Menorahs and Passover plates to Bar Mitzvah gifts and literature.

She explains, “We have been serving the Jewish community for a long time. I think it is important to be able to continue one’s heritage. I was born in Brazil as were my parents but we are all descended from European Jewish settlers.”

4 Responses to "Practicing Judaism in Rio and Brazil"

  1. John Swiman  June 13, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    Good article, however there are many other citiews that also have a Jewish presence although not as large as either Rio and or Sao Paulo. These communities should also be recognized as well and with the assistance of the Jewish communities of Rio and Sao Paulo be improved.

    The Jewish community in Brazil has been instrumental in the growth of the country.

  2. Elyssa Chayo  June 16, 2013 at 4:19 PM

    thank you for bringing Jewish life in Rio and in brazil into the spotlight. The community here, especially in Rio, is a vast melting pot, with Jews from all over the world (not just Europe), practicing at every level of our religion and adding flavor to the already vibrant and colorful Brazilian landscape. One great group and resource for Jewish foreigners in Rio can be found on Facebook at Jewish Gringos in Rio.

  3. ROBERTO AVRAHAM BARZEL  June 16, 2013 at 6:57 PM

    The word originates from the word Brazil Barzel, so a Hebrew expression. So Brazil, may have the largest community of Jews descendetes the world! Because no record in the city of Rio de Janeiro, at the top of Pedra da Gávea, in Aramaic inscriptions, ancient language spoken by the Phoenicians and Semitic peoples, and who believe that 10,000 years ago lived in the area known as Rio de Janeiro. The Zohar, a book that decodes the Torah says the “sons of Israel” that will be revealed when the Messiah comes, and the words of Rabbi Stauber confirms this maxim. The problem is that the Jews did not want to recognize the benei anusim ashore brasilis … Because they are too dark for the standards of the synagogues here …. rsrsrsrsr

  4. John Swiman  June 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    I was talking the other day to a friend of mine that is a university professor at UFMG who just so happnes tyo be the head of the jewish Studies program at the University.

    She has mentioned before and also from some basic research that I have done there many be many more Jews in Brazil that for many reasons do know know that they are of jewish origin. This is especeially important when you think that Portugal also expelled the Jewish population from Portugal but not as bad as Spain did and many of the Pourtugese that moved to Brazil bacame what today we call underground Jews (Converso) and they have lost the history of their past.

    Now if that can be documented then I would say that the real Jewish population using DNA and other modern methods would be much higher than the current known population that call themselves Jewish.

    I saw this many years ago with a close freind of mine in Miami that came from Bolivia. He always had an idea that he was slightly different when it came to religion. He did find out that his family were forced out of Spain and became Christian (Catholic) in order to survive and moved to Bolivia in the colonial times. he could not understand why on Friday nights his family always light candles, borke bread and toasted a cup of wine. No one in his family knew why until he and his wife and others from his immediate flamil moved to Miami .. They the began to find out that they were like many others that are just now finding their jewish roots.

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