Américas / January-February 2001
By Larry Luxner In the Bom Retiro working-class neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil, 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, clothed and offered spiritual hope to thousands of impoverished Brazilian Jews.
During a recent visit to the modest five-story headquarters of Ten Yad -- which in Hebrew means "lending a hand" -- 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 elderly Yiddish-speaking men were engaged in a lively political discussion, and in yet another room, Rabbi Yehuda Kamnitzer had just finished giving a lecture on Judaism.
"Our purpose is not only to give food, but also to instill spiritual values," said Kamnitzer, a São Paulo native who studied at an Orthodox Lubavitch seminary in New York's Crown Heights. "We put tefillin (phylacteries) on people, we give Torah classes in the morning, and we celebrate the holidays."
Therezinha Davidovich, coordinator of Ten Yad, says her organization served over 93,000 hot lunches last year, up from 8,400 in 1992 and 20,000 in 1993. Over 150 people, mostly women, volunteer in 20 different activities within Ten Yad, ranging from helping poor newlyweds get financing for apartments to delivering 135 "meals on wheels" on a daily basis to Jews who are either handicapped or have no access to public transportation.
Kamnitzer, above whose desk hangs a portrait of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, says that although the famous rabbi was the spiritual inspiration behind Ten Yad, the organization gets no direct assistance from the New York-based Lubavitchers, nor does it receive funding from the Brazilian federal or São Paulo municipal governments.
Rather, the money to run Ten Yad is donated by wealthy individuals within São Paulo's 80,000-member Jewish community, and by private Jewish-owned companies like Banco Safra, Construtora Kauffmann, Emporia Carmel and Rafi Eletronica Comercial. Ten Yad's annual Festival de Música Judaica -- which features performances by visiting Jewish groups such as Yerachmiel Begun and The Miami Boys' Choir -- also helps keep the organization going financially.
"Every cent people donate to us is used to help the needy," said the bearded rabbi, who like his ultra-Orthodox counterparts in New York, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Jerusalem wears a black hat, white shirt, black suit and "payes" or earlocks.
In fact, Ten Yad's very existence only blocks away from a run-down train station disproves a common misconception among Latin Americans: that the relatively few Jews in their midst are all rich and powerful.
While it's true that Jewish immigrants to Brazil and Spanish-speaking Latin America have historically fared much better than their Gentile counterparts, today thousands of Jews in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela who were once financially secure now suffer the same frustrations as everyone else. The January 1999 devaluation of Brazil's 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.
"In Brazil, we're living through an economic crisis, and in general, everybody's getting poorer. The middle class is getting smaller every day," said Monica Wexler, one of 15 paid staffers at Ten Yad, and a former social worker at the Congregação Israelita Paulista, a large synagogue in São Paulo.
"We have a serious unemployment problem," Wexler said as she guided a visitor through the cafeteria. "Many of these people haven't gone to college, and finding work for them is very difficult."
Applicants are interviewed one at a time in a private room, and a professional evaluation is done to determine their level of need. In addition to the lunch program, Ten Yad also distributes, on a weekly basis, 175 dairy "kits" consisting of milk, bread, cheese, coffee, tea, chocolate, margarine, cereals, canned soup and other staples to those suffering from malnutrition.
Last year, Ten Yad was named one of Brazil's 50 most effective philanthropic organizations by Kaniatz & Associados, a São Paulo think tank.
The organization was also cited -- along with Argentina's Fundación Tzedaká, Mexico's Fundación Activa and the Asociación Israelita of Venezuela -- as an example of volunteerism at its best during a regional conference in Uruguay on the Jewish response to poverty throughout Latin America.