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Amidst 350th anniversary festivities, Brazil's Recife takes center stage
JTA / September 5, 2004

By Larry Luxner

RECIFE, Brazil — When Jewish leaders and government officials gather in New York this week to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, the 1,500 or so Jews of Recife, Brazil, will be kvelling with pride.

It was from this sprawling port city of 2.5 million where, on Sept. 7, 1654, a group of 23 Dutch-speaking Sephardim set sail for New Amsterdam in a desperate effort to escape the Inquisition imposed by Portugal, which had defeated Holland for control of Brazil. Shortly after arrival, those 23 established Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in the colony that eventually became New York.

"Our community wants to show the world that we were an important chapter in Jewish history," said Boris Berenstein, president of the Federação Israelita de Pernambuco. "They're celebrating 350 years of Jews in the United States, but nobody's made any reference to Recife until now, and that's only because of the anniversary."

As part of that celebration, local Jews have put together an exhibition entitled "Pernambuco: Gateway to New York" which features, among other things, a multimedia and 3D virtual tour of the recently restored Kahal Zur Israel synagogue in downtown Recife, capital of Pernambuco state. After New York, the exhibit will go on to Canada and then to Los Angeles.

Two years ago, Kahal Zur Israel was opened to the general public as a museum and documentation center, following a $500,000 restoration project funded by the São Paulo-based Safra Foundation and the state government of Pernambuco.

In a touch of irony, the historic shul is located on Rua do Bom Jesus (Street of the Good Jesus), right next to London Pub in the heart of Recife's port area. The building housing Kahal Zur Israel had been demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, being replaced by a bank and later by an electronics shop. Subsequent excavations revealed eight different floor levels, the foundations of the synagogue and the remains of a mikve used in purification rituals.

Visitors, each paying the equivalent of 60 cents' admission, enter the building from the street. They can view the mikve and original pavement stones through glass panels on the floor, as they make their way to the building's interior. On upper floors, explanatory panels in Portuguese and English tell the history of Recife's Jews. The highlight of the restored synagogue is the bima for Sefer Torah readings and the Aron Hakodesh, or Holy Ark.

Behind the scenes, half a dozen archivists and researchers work at computer stations under the direction of Tânia N. Kaufman, director-general of the Arquivo Historico Judaico de Pernambuco, a non-profit group whose employees include both Jews and non-Jews.

"This is part of a larger project to fill in the historical gaps of the Jewish presence in Pernambuco," Kaufman told JTA. "We cover the history of the Sephardim since the 16th century and Portuguese Jews coming from Amsterdam in the 17th century, until the present time."

Kaufman said that between 1637 and 1644, Jews enjoyed complete religious freedom under the reign of the local Dutch administrator, João Mauricio de Nassau. These new arrivals also came for economic reasons, as Sephardic Portuguese Jews who had settled in Amsterdam years before enjoyed strong commercial ties with Dutch entrepreneurs.

Thanks to continuous Jewish emigration, the community grew to 600 families led by Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, who was sent by the Amsterdam Congregation. Jews flourished in the sugar industry and were slave-owners.

But with the decline of Dutch rule in 1654 and the reinstatement of the Portuguese regime, Recife's Jews were forced to leave. Many of them did, sailing off to the Caribbean or North America, though most of them stayed, undergoing public conversion to Christianity while continuing to practice Judaism in secret.

"These people mixed with the local population and sometimes went into hiding, because if the Inquisition found them, they would be sent to Lisbon and burned alive," she said.

Yiddishkeit in Recife remained dormant until right after World War I, when large numbers of Eastern European Jews began arriving as immigrants right off the boat. Today, Recife has about as many Jews as it did in 1654, even though for most of the past three centuries, there was no organized community to speak of.

"We're a small community, but today's Jews are not descended from the Sephardim who were here in the 1600s," said Berenstein, a radiologist. "My family, for instance, was from Romania. They survived the Shoah and came to Brazil in 1948."

Berenstein, interviewed on the balcony of his lavish oceanfront condominum over coffee and glasses of local mangaba juice, said half of Recife's 400 Jewish families reside in the upscale district of Boa Viagem; the other half live downtown, in the area around Kahal Zur Israel.

But Recife's Jewish population has stagnated because of its geographic and economic limitations. The nearest communities are in Salvador (home to 500 Jews); Fortaleza (120 Jews) and Natal (40 Jews). Recife is well over 2,000 kilometers from São Paulo, the center of Jewish life in Brazil.

"The Jews here are fairly well-off, though most of my Jewish friends went to São Paulo and never came back, because in São Paulo there are more opportunities to make money," he said.

Recife maintains an 85-year-old Jewish school, the Colegio Israelita Moises Schwartz, which currently has 150 students but faces serious financial problems despite the local Jewish community's relative wealth.

"The school is going through a difficult time, and it's about to close because a lot of the Jews aren't sending their kids there anymore," said Recife businessman Alan Rabinovici. "One of the biggest reasons for that is intermarriage. Since one of the parents is not Jewish, they tend to send their children to non-Jewish schools instead."

Rabinovici is president of Blue Brazil, a local tour operator that's pushing Jewish-themed travel packages to prospective American visitors. On Nov. 6, Varig Airlines — in tandem with Blue Brazil — will launch weekly nonstop flights between New York's JFK and Natal, making the whole region more accessible to U.S. tourists than it's ever been.

Starting at Kahal Zur Israel, Blue Brazil's tour will visit half a dozen points of Jewish interest including the Mauricio de Nassau Bridge, built by Jewish engineer Baltasar da Fonseca in 1644; the Igreja dos Milagres church in colonial Olinda, constructed upon the remains of the Jodenwacht (Jewish Guard) formed in 1630 by Jewish soldiers serving in the Dutch army, and Camaragibe, site of an important sugar mill where New Christians — also known as marranos or conversos — held secret religious meetings.

These days, the descendants of those crypto-Jews are spread across northeastern Brazil, leading to a recent resurgence of interest in Judaism.

"In schools, children are now asking their teachers why the Jews don't eat pork," said Kaufman. "I had to create a training program because the teachers didn't know how to respond to such questions."

Kaufman said in 2001, she introduced a social-studies course at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco entitled "Judaism: Culture or Religion." This year, she has 33 students, with more signing up every semester. Her team has also begun a study on crypto-Jews in the sertão, as northeastern Brazil's hardscrabble rural inland region is known. She has interviewed 50 to 60 people on the subject.

"Some want to return to Judaism, but without being converted, while others want to go through the process of conversion," she said. "Everything is informal. Many of them don't even know they're Jewish."

Recently, about 15 such people were converted by a reform rabbi from Belo Horizonte, capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

Rabbi Alexander Mizrahi is spiritual leader of the local Bet Habad, which also happens to be Recife's only functioning synagogue. He agreed that there's been enormous interest among Brazilians in their supposed Jewish roots — especially since the restoration of Kahal Zur Israel and the favorable local publicity it has generated.

"Many Brazilians come here asking about conversion, but most of them are not serious. The majority have certain interests, like jobs, or because they want to marry a Jewish girl," said Mizrahi, noting that Orthodox Jewish authorities have banned conversions in South America for the last 30 years, under orders from Israel's Chief Rabbinate. "People who are really serious about Judaism nowadays must go to Israel or the States."

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