Brazilian Jews
April 1st, 2009 by Elijah

A Brazilian Jewish person (Portuguese: Judeu Brasileiro) is a Brazilian person of matrilineal Jewish ancestry.The history of the Jews in Brazil is a rather long and complex one, as it stretches from the very beginning of the European settlement in the new continent. Jewish immigration to Latin America began with seven sailors arriving in Christopher Columbus’s crew. Jews started settling in Brazil ever since the Inquisition reached Portugal in the 16th century. They arrived in Brazil during the period of Dutch rule, setting up in Recife the first synagogue in the Americas as early as 1636.

The oldest synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, located in Recife.

The oldest synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, located in Recife.

The oldest synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, located in Recife.

Most of those Jews were Sephardic Jews who had fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal to the religious freedom of the Netherlands. The first Jews arrived in Brazil as Conversos, names designated to describe Jews (or Muslims) who converted to Catholicism, forcibly. The Inquisition kept them under close surveillance and condemned to death in the bonfire anyone who, being baptized, persisted secretly in the practice of his/her former religion. So, anyway, it was safer to emigrate to Brazil and, according to the Inquisition reports, many Jews were condemned for secretly observing Jewish customs in Brazil during colonial times.
Despite constant persecution by the Inquisition, the Conversos successfully established sugar plantations and mills. There were about 50,000 Europeans living in Brazil in 1624 and the Conversos made up a significant percentage of this population. According to Alden Oreck, “They were businessmen, importers, exporters, teachers, writers, poets, even priests.”

In 1630, the Dutch conquered portions of northeast Brazil. The Dutch colonizers permitted the open practice of any religion. In 1636, the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue was built by the Jewish settlers in Recife, the capital of Dutch Brazil. It remains in the same location to this day and the temple is considered to be the oldest synagogue in the Americas. Official Dutch census reported that the population of Jews in Dutch Brazil peaked in 1645. About 1450 (11% of the total population) citizens were Jews at that time.

During the Dutch regime, the Jews prospered in, the sugar industry, trade and tax farming. Jews worked mainly in retail and brokerage, as engineers and lawyers. Senhores de Engenho, the proprietor of a sugar plantation complex, stated that only about 6% of sugar mills were owned by Jews. People preferred to work for Jews because while the Portuguese only gave Sunday off and the Dutch gave no day off, the Jews gave both Saturday (Jewish Sabbath) and Sunday as rest days for the workers (slaves).

The Catholic Inquisition responded to the Jews’ prosperity in Dutch Brazil angrily. The Jews were accused for turning in Brazilian property for the Dutch “heretics”. They were accused for being the utmost responsibles for the Portuguese political disaster during the Dutch regime in Brazil. Also, the rapid growth of the Jewish population in Pernambuco worried the Portuguese Christians. They wrote a letter in 1637 to the government requesting the immediate suspension of Jewish migration to the Captaincy. They called for the expulsion of all Jews and even accused some four “infamous” Jews of plotting a revolt of slaves. Even before the Portuguese recaptured the Dutch lands, many limitations have been imposed on Jews, “banning intermarriage, the construction of synagogues or charging more than 3 percent interest on loans.”

After the Portuguese recaptured the Brazilian Dutch lands, in 1654, Jews fled to many other places. The conversos, mostly stayed in Brazil and moved to the countryside, particularly in the State of Paraiba, to avoid the re-activation of the Inquisition in Recife. The inquisitors arrested and condemned many of these conversos living in Northeast Brazil. Among the Jews that fled to the Caribbean and North America, 24 Jews arrived to New Amsterdam, which later became New York City, becoming the first Jews to arrive in the United States.

The Jews began to slowly arrive again in Brazil after a royal decree signed in Portugal in 1773 abolished all discrimination against Jews mainly because without the Jews the commerce and business collapsed. A stream of Sepharadic Moroccan Jews began arriving in 1810 in Belém, capital of the Province of Grão-Pará, in Northern Brazil. Not only were they attracted to the Amazon region because Brazil presented itself as a nation free of persecutions like the ones in Morocco, but also because of, the intensification of the exterior, propitiating the greater commerce of importation and exportation. Transportations of passengers and migrants to the interior navigation was subsidized and propitiated the interiorization of the Jewish migration along the Amazon River and its tributaries. The rubber cycle also attracted the English, French, German, Portuguese, and the distressed people looking for a better place from Northeast Brazil, that escaped the droughts of 1877 and 1888.

The synagogue of Belém, Shaar Hashamaim (“Gate of Heaven”), was founded in 1824 to 1828. The synagogue in Belém was Eshel Avraham (“Abraham’s Tamarisk”) was established in 1823 or 1824. The Jewish population in the capital of Grão-Pará had in 1842 an Israelite necropolis. After the first Brazilian constitution in 1824 that granted freedom of religion, Jews began to slowly arrive in Brazil. Many Moroccan Jews arrived in the 19th century, principally because of the rubber boom. Waves of Jewish immigration occurred during the rise of Nazis in Europe. In late 1950s, another wave of immigration brought thousands of North African Jews. According to the famous letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha to the King of Portugal, the first Portuguese to set foot in Brazil was Gaspar da Gama, a cristão-novo (converso), a Jew who had been forcibly baptized and who later went along with Pedro Alvares Cabral expedition to India, that in the course discovered what is now Brazil, in 1500.

Because of unfavorable conditions in Europe, European Jews began debating in the 1890s about establishing agricultural settlements in Brazil. At first, the plan did not work because of Brazilian political quarrels. In 1904, the Jewish agricultural colonization, supported by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) began in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state in Brazil. The main intention of the JCA in creating those colonies was to resettle Russian Jews during the mass immigration from the hostile Russian empire. The first colonies were Philippson (1904) and Quatro Irmãos (1912). These colonization attempts failed because of, inexperience, insufficient funds and poor planning and administrative problems lack of agricultural facilities and the lure of city jobs.

In 1920, the JCA began selling some of the land to non-Jewish settlers. Despite the failure, the colonies aided Brazil and helped change the stereotypical image of the non-productive Jew, capable of working only in commerce and finance. The main benefit from these agricultural experiments was the removal of restrictions in Brazil on Jewish immigration from Europe during the twentieth century.” By the First World War, 7,000 Jews were inhabiting Brazil. In 1910 in Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, a Jewish school was opened and a Yiddish newspaper, Di Menshhayt (“Humanity”) was established in 1915. One year later, the Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro formed an aid committee for World War I victims.

There are about 96,000 Jews in Brazil today, and they play an active role in politics, sports, academia, trade and industry, and are overall well integrated in all spheres of Brazilian life. The majority of Brazilian Jews live in the state of São Paulo but there are also sizeable communities in Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, and Paraná.

Jews lead an open religious life in Brazil and there are rarely any reported cases of anti-semitism in the country. In the main urban centers there are schools, associations and synagogues where Brazilian Jews can practice and pass on Jewish culture and traditions. Some Jewish scholars say that the only threat facing Judaism in Brazil is the relatively high frequence of intermarriage.


Sandra Annenberg, journalist and news anchor
Clara Ant, political activist and presidential adviser
Daniel Azulay, comic artist
Jom Tob Azulay, film director
Rubem David Azulay, dermatologist, founder of Brazilian Society of Dermatology
Hector Babenco, film director
Miro Bacin, journalist
Leoncio Basbaum, physician and political activist
Carlos Minc Baumfeld, politician and social activist
Moysés Baumstein, holographer, film/video producer, painter, writer
Manoel Beckman, colonial leader
Adriana Behar, beach volleyball player
Tatiana Belinky, actress and writer
Olga Benário Prestes, German-born communist militant
Samuel Benchimol, entrepreneur and Amazon pioneer
Abraham Bentes, army commander
Daniel Benzali, TV actor
Claudio Besserman Vianna, comedian
Joel Birman, writer
Eva Altman Blay, sociologist and politician
Adolfo Bloch, journalist
Debora Bloch, actress
Nilton Bonder, community leader and writer
Gilberto Braga, author
Claudio Basbaum, gynecologist medicine professor
Waldemar Levy Cardoso, field marshal
Boris Casoy, journalist
Otto Maria Carpeaux, literary critic
Moyses Chahon, army commander
Juca Chaves, comedian, composer and singer
Caco Ciocler, actor
Roberto Civita, journalist and entrepreneur
Victor Civita, journalist
Deborah Colker, dancer and choreographer
Gilberto Dimenstein, journalist
Alberto Dines, journalist
Tufi Duek, fashion designer
Dina Dublon, director
German Efromovich, entrepreneur
Leon Feffer, industrialist
Benny Feilhaber professional soccer player
Walter Feldman, politician
Fortuna, singer and composer
Vilém Flusser, philosopher
Fernando Rizzolo, lawyer and Journalist
Marcelo Gleiser, physicist and writer
Betty Gofman, actress
Rosane Gofman, actress
José Goldemberg, educator, physicist and minister
Alberto Goldman, politician
Jacob Gorender, politician and historian
Oded Grajew, human rights activist
Serginho Groisman, TV host
Mario Haberfeld, racing driver
Alexandre Herchcovitch, fashion designer
Wladimir Herzog, journalist
Leon Hirszman, film director
Marc Horowitz, trader
Luciano Huck, TV show host
Felipe Hirch, theater director
Roberto Justus, advertiser and TV host
Isaac Karabtchevsky, musician and conductor
Abraham Kasinski, industrialist
Elisa Kauffman, politician
Israel Klabin, mayor of Rio de Janeiro
Jacques Klein, pianist
Samuel Klein (businessman), entrepreneur
Samuel Kicis, army commander
Ithamara Koorax, jazz singer
Frans Krajcberg, artist and environmentalist
Miguel Krigsner, entrepreneur and environmentalist
Bel Kutner, actress
Celso Lafer, diplomat
Iosif Landau, writer and poet
Cesar Lattes, physicist
Leo Lebellot, musician, songwriter and lead singer of the Brazilian Rock Band Prato Principal.
Jaime Lerner, politician (governor Paraná state), urban planner
Eliezer Moisés Levy, politician (former mayor of Macapá)
José Lewgoy, actor and director
Clarice Lispector, writer´
Gerson Levi-Lazzaris, ethnoarchaeologist
Carlos Maltz – Drummer of rock band Engenheiros do Hawaii
Maria Luiza Tucci Carneiro
Salomão Nauslausky, army commander
Arnaldo Niskier, journalist and writer
Noel Nutels, public health physician and human rights activist
Carlos Nuzman, sportsman and president of Olympic Committee
Joyce Pascowitch, journalist
Ivo Perelman, jazz saxophonist
Flora Purim, jazz singer
Sultana Levy Rosenblatt, writer
Ricardo Rosset, Formula One driver
Edmond Safra, banker
Joseph Safra, banker
Ricardo Semler, entrepreneur
Moise Safra, banker
Silvio Santos, (Senor Abravanel), TV show host
Mario Schenberg, physicist
Moacyr Scliar, writer
Lasar Segall, artist
Dina Sfat, actress
Paul Israel Singer, economist, writer, politician, activist.
Amir Slama, fashion designer
Henry Sobel, Rabbi, community leader
Jaime Spitzcovsky, journalist
Dan Stulbach, actor
Luciano Szafir, actor
Alex Stry, Musician – Guitarist and Singer of Brazilian Rock band Prato Principal.
Moise Edmond Seid, physician, former executive director of the International Traffic Medicine Association
Nathalia Thimberg, actress
Eva Todor, actress
Mauricio Waldman, sociologist and politician
Didi Wagner, TV show host
David Wainer, Journalist
Yara Yavelberg, political activist
Mayana Zatz, geneticist
Jacob Zveibil, politician
Jacob Zveiter, air force commander
David Zylberstajn, politician and administrator
Benjamin Zymler, auditor-general
Jacob Blochtein, physician and writer
Jacob Benemond, sailor
Moysés Baumstein, publisher, holographer, artist
Jaime Benatar, scientist
Caco Ciocler, actor
Rodrigo Osna, entrepreneur
Gilberto Tumscitz Braga, novelist
Jose Benedito Cohen, poet
Betty Fuks, writer
Rubens Gerchman, painter
Alfred Lemle, physician and writer
Salomao Malina, politician
Abraham Kasinski, industrialist
Mario Kertesz, journalist and politician
Flavio Koutzi, politician and social activist
Inacio L. Obadia Architect, Rio De Janeiro
Helena Salem, journalist and writer
Elie Horn, founder of Cyrela Group
Ivoncy Ioschpe, industrialist
Bella Josef, writer
Fabio Koifman, historian
Fayga Ostrower, painter and writer
Mauricio Pinkusfeld, sailor
Carla Pinsky, historian and writer
Jacks Rabinovich, industrialist
Moses Rabinovitch, journalist
Saul Raiz, politician (mayor Curitiba)
Isaias Raw, biochemist and educator
Philippe Reichstul, civil servant and administrator
Cora Ronai, journalist
Max Rosenmann, politician
Bernard Rajzman, volleyball player
David Rodin, sailor
Caca Rosset, director
Mauricio Grabois, communist political activist
Jacob Guinsburg, publisher
Zevi Ghivelder, journalist
Andre Singer, journalist and presidential spokesman
Alfredo Sirkis, politician and ecologist
Mauricio Sirotski, journalist
Eugenio Staub, industrialist
Benjamin Steinbruch, steel manufacturer
Hans Stern, entrepreneur
Salli Szajnferber, army commander
Fanny Tabak, political activist
Boris Schnaiderman, writer
Chael Schreier, political activist
Mauricio Schulman, civil servant and administrator
Carlos Scliar, painter
Natalia Thimberg, actress
Henrique Veltman, journalist
Jacques Wagner, trade unionist and minister
Ann Wainer, environmental lawyer, writer
David Wainer, journalist
Samuel Wainer, journalist
Arnold Wald, jurist
Waldemar Zveiter, high court judge
Helio Zylberstajn, economist and writer
Gregori Warchavchik, architect
Istvan Wessel, entrepreneur
Israel Zecker, politician
Leo Kryss, entrepreneur
Patrick Zveiter, entrepreneur

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