Jewish Life in Brazil: a Snapshot

by Abigail Pickus

With over 192 million people living in Brazil, the Jewish population of 95 thousand would appear to be a mere drop in the proverbial bucket.

And yet, despite its size, the Jewish community in Brazil has significantly influenced not only Jewish life, but the cultural, political and overall life of the country. “In general, Jews are a very integrated part of the Brazilian community and have a lot of strength and communal influence that is disproportionate to their size,” said Gaby Glazman, Jewish Agency emissary (shaliach) in Sao Paulo since 2008.

The two largest Jewish populations live in Sao Paulo (55 thousand) and Rio de Janeiro (30 thousand) while the rest are spread throughout the country in smaller communities. Jews are reported to have lived in what is now Brazil since the first Portuguese arrived in the country in 1500. The Jewish population today is made up of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi descent – from Europe from before WWII and from Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, among other places. Jewish life includes all denominations and observance, from Reform to Orthodox, from a vibrant JCC to active Zionist youth movements and everything in between.

“One of the nice things about living here is that each person can find the Judaism that is right for him,” said Glazman.

As a tolerant society, there are not overt acts of anti-Semitism, which doesn’t mean it’s not “under the radar,” according to Glazman, “but Brazil has strong laws against racism, that includes anti-Semitism.”

As a case in point, Glazman stressed that in Brazil, blacks and whites lives together in harmony and there is a large Asian population, including 3 million Japanese living in Sao Paolo.

“Brazil is an open place. Jews here live in comfort and can walk the streets with Israel on a t-shirt,” said Glazman.

Such a tolerant society is the perfect setting for the new Jewish arts and culture center built by the Jewish community, a beautiful building featuring an impressive art collection whose goal is to showcase Jewish life and culture to the community at large. It was also Jewish founders who established the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, considered one of the top hospitals in Latin America, which underscores the commitment to contributing to the improvement of life for all.

Priorities for the Jewish community as a whole are to have political representation and a strong lobby. There is also a strong connection to Israel and Brazilian youth are active participants in programs like Masa Israel and Taglit. The community also supports its Jewish schools and places a strong emphasis on Jewish education but it’s a challenge to keep children in the schools because of the expense and the good quality of the local public schools. This, then, is the challenge, according to Glazman: Keeping the next generation connected to Judaism and Jewishly educated. “The younger generation is less active in community than the older generation,” said Glazman.

But the community is also very focused on philanthropy and contributing to the Brazilian life as a whole. The community built a beautiful building to showcase Jewish art and culture to all Brazilians, according to Glazman. It was also Jewish founders who established the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, considered one of the top hospitals in Latin America.