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The Two Faces of Sao Paulo

Binyamin Rose, Sao Paulo, Brazil

Brazil is a land of contrasting styles. It is nouveau riche, and at the same time, a country where millions of its citizens live on the proverbial $1 a day. It is also a land where an established Orthodox Jewish community, existing relatively free of anti-Semitism, has taken a defining role, proving that a partnership between religious organizations and the government can make an impact in the country’s war on poverty. It is also a kiddush Hashem in action.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

In four days inBrazil, I got none of the cold stares or sneers that normally accompany me on my visits toEurope. A few men who passed me by on the streets even extended the traditional Brazilian “thumbs-up” greeting. While I could have dispensed with the conventional pat on the chest following a handshake, at least when it happened over Shabbos I wasn’t worried that someone was using it as a pretext to see what they could pick from my pocket.

Brazilians have a longstanding tradition of being a hospitable people.

Originally populated by nomadic Indian tribes long beforePortugalcolonized it,Brazilproactively sought both skilled and unskilled immigrants in an attempt to build a workforce after the country abolished slavery 125 years ago. Today,Brazilis also home to the largest diaspora Japanese community as well as a safe haven for tens of thousands of Maronite Christians who fledLebanonandSyria.

The first Jews are thought to have arrived just before 1500 in the wake of the Inquisition. Gaspar da Gama, who was born Jewish but was forcibly baptized, accompanied Portuguese admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed inBrazilin 1500. Some Dutch Jews arrived in the 17th century whenHollandbriefly held parts of northeastBrazil.

Alberto Milkewitz, an associate of theJerusalemCenterfor Public Affairs and executive director of the Sao Paulo Jewish Federation, noted three major waves of immigration before World War I fromPolandandRussia, and another major wave after the war from different countries ofEurope. During and after World War II another wave fromGermanyandPolandarrived, comprised primarily of Yiddish- and German-speakers. During the mid-1950s a wave of French- and Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived fromEgypt,Syria,Lebanon, and other Arab countries, to become the main source of today’s Sephardic communities.

Today,Brazil’s estimated 95,000 Jews have made their presence felt. Perhaps the best known-name among Brazilian Jewry is the Safra family. The Safras emigrated fromLebanonin the early 1950s. Forbes called Joseph Safra the “richest banker in the world,” and Jewish families also ownBrazil’s two largest publishing and jewelry companies.

But it may well be Jewish contributions to the day-to-day health and welfare of the common man that has won Jews the most accolades.

Jewish-run antipoverty and medical care programs have established themselves as essential public services, mainly in impoverished areas of Greater Sao Paulo — which, as home to 20 million people, is the world’s eighth-largest metropolitan area.

“Sao Paulois proud to be the host to the biggest Jewish community in Brazil,” says Geraldo Alckmin, governor of Sao Paulostate, in a brief interview with Mishpacha. “We respect their tremendous contributions to science, arts, and education, but it is their activism — what you call chesed — that I consider to be the Jews’ most significant accomplishment.”


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