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Waiting for economic upturn, Brazil's Jews struggle to get by
JTA / July 15, 2003

By Larry Luxner

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- In the Bom Retiro working-class neighborhood of South America's largest city, an inconspicuous little sign in Hebrew and Portuguese stands out from the proliferation of Korean-owned shops along Rua Ribeiro de Lima.

The sign welcomes visitors to the "Instituição Beneficente Israelita Ten Yad," a charity that since 1992 has fed hot meals and offered spiritual hope to thousands of impoverished Brazilian Jews.

Isaac Guinsberg, 69, is a regular at Ten Yad, having enjoyed lunch here nearly every day for the last 10 years.

"I used to work for the chevre kadisha. I received a quite good salary and didn't want to come here, but it wasn't enough to live on," said the São Paulo native, who is divorced and has no contact with his children. He said half of his monthly government pension of 200 reais (about $70) goes for rent.

"I feel good here," he said. "It it weren't for Ten Yad, I'd be in a very bad situation, because I have no money to buy food."

It's the same for Rose Brunstein, a 62-year-old widow who has been showing up at Ten Yad for the past eight years.

"Economically, I need to come here. My son helps me a little bit but it's not enough," she said. "Now I eat here every day. I also receive 45 reais (about $16) a month to attend Torah lessons. This is a lot of money for me. On Jewish holidays, we receive special kits and an extra 50 reais ($17) to buy food."

Ten Yad, which in Hebrew means "lending a hand," is run by the Lubavitcher organization and is one of several Jewish charities fighting hunger in Brazil — a vast nation of 175 million people who last year elected a leftist as their president for the first time in a generation.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known throughout Brazil as "Lula," has made the struggle against hunger and poverty one of his major priorities through a program called Fome Zero (Portuguese for "zero hunger").

Yet even though Brazil's economic situation is gradually improving, the January 1999 devaluation of Brazil's currency, the real, wiped out the savings of many retired middle-class Jewish families — forcing them to turn to charity for the first time in their lives.

"We always knew that most of Brazil's Jews were middle class," said Jayme Blay, president of the Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo, an umbrella group of 55 institutions serving the 60,000 Jews of São Paulo state. "But this last crisis was the most difficult for the community, because the standard of living dropped dramatically. This included a lot of Jewish entrepreneurs with little shops and businesses, and even professionals like lawyers, doctors and engineers. Our welfare institutions saw an enormous increase in their workload."

Blay, who estimates that 10-15% of São Paulo's Jews are receiving some kind of assistance, said the increasing poverty has also put a dent in synagogue membership. Currently, São Paulo has between 20 and 25 synagogues operating year-round. Most of them are conservative or reform, with maybe 15% of Brazilian Jews attending Orthodox services.

"When the crisis arrived, many Brazilian Jews didn't have enough money to live through the crisis and wait until better times," he said. "The ones who lost their income cannot benefit at all from the improving situation, because right now they have to pay their debts, solve their problems, rebuild their lives and look for other jobs."

And that's created a lot of work for Dora Lucia Brenner, a 55-year-old grandmother who runs perhaps Brazil's largest Jewish charity, the União Brasileiro-Israelita do Bem-Estar Social.

Known as Unibes, the São Paulo-based organization was founded in 1915 to help Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe. Today, Unibes provides housing, day-care and financial assistance to 1,500 families, and operates on an annual budget of $2.5 million.

"When I first came to Unibes 15 years ago, we had 500 Jewish families, mostly older and very sick people who had no other means of support," said Brenner, whose grandparents left Poland and came to Brazil in 1920. "But in the last eight or nine years, because of the economic situation, we have lots of new poor, mainly young people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, people who don't have jobs" she said. "We are trying very hard to help these people, but it's hard because Brazil is not in a very good economic situation."

Unibes occupies three large buildings along São Paulo's Rua Rodolfo Miranda. Its staff consists of 180 workers and 200 volunteers. In addition to caring for poor Jews, the organization also provides day-care facilities for over 1,000 non-Jewish children.

"We get money from the local São Paulo government and many foundations. We also have partnerships with Cinemark, Accor Hotels and with Fundación Vitae," she said, estimating that Unibes receives 150-180 reais ($52-62) per month per child to administer the program. "They give us money for specific projects for these children."

During a recent visit to the modest five-story headquarters of Ten Yad, half a dozen women volunteers were serving hot kosher lunches to about 130 pensioners in their 60s, 70s or 80s. Across the hall from the cafeteria, a handful of Yiddish-speaking men were engaged in a lively political discussion, and in yet another room, a group of women listened to a lecture on Judaism.

Therezinha Davidovich, coordinator of Ten Yad, says her organization served more than 148,000 hot lunches last year. Over 300 people, mostly women, volunteer in 20 different activities within Ten Yad, ranging from helping poor newlyweds get financing for apartments to delivering "meals on wheels" on a daily basis to Jews who are either handicapped or have no access to public transportation.

The money to run Ten Yad is donated by wealthy individuals within São Paulo's 60,000-member Jewish community, and by private Jewish-owned companies.

"Unfortunately, the demand for our services is rising fast. More Jews have lost their homes, and more people are alienated from the community because they can't afford to pay their synagogue membership dues," said Rabbi David Weitman, spiritual director of Ten Yad. "We have many unemployed people. Here, when you lose your job at the age of 50, you don't get it back."

Ten Yad has been so successful in combating hunger within the Jewish community that last year, the state government of São Paulo chose Ten Yad to administer a hot-lunch program for indigent Brazilians.

The organization now serves 1,700 meals a day to homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and others out of a rented storefront in Baixada, a very poor neighborhood about 20 minutes from Bom Retiro. A line forms each day at around 10 a.m. and often stretches for blocks as people wait for their meals.

But it's not a free lunch; everyone on line pays one real (about 35 cents) each.

"The government thinks that if they give one real, they'll appreciate it more," said Weitman. "Since we are Jews, we have to do something for the local population too. The government picked us because they know we have expertise in food programs."

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