Building a Jewish Home in Rio, Despite a Pandemic

Courtesy Hillel International

By Marcia Kelner Polisuk

Jewish nonprofits, especially those dedicated to bringing people together in community, are struggling under the weight of the global pandemic. In developing countries like Brazil, the impact of the pandemic has been especially devastating. Brazil is experiencing one of the worst economic, political, and public health emergencies in its history. The coronavirus has ravaged the country and made it one of the global epicenters of the pandemic. The nonprofit organizations that are thriving in this moment are ones built on years of careful planning and donor cultivation. At a time when global philanthropy is down, organizations are shuttering their doors, and the future is uncertain, a small Jewish community in the heart of Rio is thriving and looking toward the future.

Since 2003, young Brazilian Jewish students have had a home in our community. Over the years thousands of Carioca students and hundreds of visiting Americans and other international students been welcomed here. Because Hillel Rio is not university based, students stay involved over many seasons of life, from their late teenage years into their early 30s. Many of our young alumni have been involved with the organization since its inception, and this long-standing connection has set us up with a strong and committed based of involved leaders as we look to weather this current storm and come out stronger on the other side.

While we could not predict the crisis that would befall us in 2020, we are thriving in this moment because, from the very beginning, we built a strong stewardship and engagement plan that emotionally connects to the Rio community and grows with our participants and young alumni. We help them feel the value of our work from the first day of their Birthright Israel trip to asking them to help us build a new home for our organization, brick by brick. As a result of this approach, people in their 20s and 30s with young families are still contributing, even now as economic conditions worsen.

We have also shown our community why we are worth their investment. Our students today are helping to ease the pandemic in many ways: by visiting favellas to distribute masks, and to teach children proper hygiene and handwashing. They are distributing food packages and teaching simple recipes that are easy to make during isolation and with a limited food supply. We are tutoring younger students online in many subjects. And we are ensuring Jewish traditions live on through a challah delivery program, bringing Shabbat to more than 120 families, reaching beyond the student community to involve Rio’s Jewish families in celebrating our traditions.

In many ways, Hillel Rio is where Jewish young people come to learn about traditions and then take them back into their family. Young Jews in Brazil live with their families for a longer time during and after university, so the experience in Hillel is always brought home, so traditions, learnings, and values are shared to the entire family.

While meeting these urgent community needs right now, we are also building for the future. Unthinkably, during the last three months, we launched and are close to completing a capital campaign to purchase and renovate our very own house along the Ipanema beaches. We raised the equivalent of $1 million, even with the daily drop in the value of local currency.

We are proof that even in a pandemic, fundraising can be successful if the community cares, feels a deep personal and long-lasting connection, and sees the long terms value of an organization and believes in securing a future.

Our success comes from the same young people we serve and those who are recent alumni. The emotional connection to Shabbat dinners, Torah study, Hebrew classes and community service projects is so strong that even in the midst of the pandemic, young people were happy to support their Jewish and larger Rio communities, donating their time and dollars. Our story can feel like the exception, but it doesn’t need to be. Jewish communities like ours can call on the connections they have created and challenge the young people they have served to step into the role of donor to forge a path through this current time.

Marcia Kelner Polisuk is the Director of International Advancement and Senior Advisor for Latin America at Hillel International.