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.
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.”
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.
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.”