In Sao Paulo, Liberal Plus Conservative Equals Reform: American-born Rabbi Henry Sobel Remains a Controversial Voice of (Most of) Brazil’s Jews

SAO PAULO, Brazil — When told that leaders of Sao Paulo’s Jewish
federation had criticized him over what they described as a series of
“pro-Palestinian” public statements in the Brazilian press in November,
Rabbi Henry Sobel said he didn’t know what the fuss was all about.

“I have been very consistent about condemning the violence on the
Palestinian side,” Rabbi Sobel said in response. “I may have said that it
would be morally sound and politically correct for Israel to use
restraint,” but he said he added in his statements that Brazilians cannot
really judge what Israel should do.

The federation has reprimanded the rabbi in the past, said the executive
director of the Federacao Israelita Do Estado De Sao Paulo, Alberto
Milkewitz. They have told Rabbi Sobel that he should clarify that his
statements are not the opinion of the entire Jewish community — an
assumption the public often makes, he said, because of the rabbi’s
popularity and his political activity. “In any publication, he never
explains that he is not the representative of the Jewish community,” Mr.
Milkewitz said. “I respect his right as a rabbi to be independent, but it
is difficult to work with him in this way.”

It is an argument whose outlines are familiar to Rabbi Sobel, 56, a
transplant from Manhattan who serves as senior rabbi of Congregacao
Israelita Paulista, a “Liberal-Conservative” synagogue whose membership of
1,800 families makes it the largest congregation in Latin America. Rabbi
Sobel, who does little to hide his American accent when speaking
Portuguese, is lauded by many as an unofficial spokesman for Brazil’s
98,000 Jews. He has forged alliances with government officials, including
Brazil’s president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and helps to prevent
anti-Semitism through Catholic-Jewish dialogue in a country where some 80%
of the 170 million people nominally affiliate as Catholic. He also sits on
the Human Rights Commission of Brazil and is the Jewish coordinator of the
National Conference of Brazilian Bishops’ Commission for Catholic-Jewish
Religious Dialogue.

But his dissemination of so-called Liberal Judaism in Brazil (Rabbi Sobel
received his ordination from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union
College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York) has generated criticism
from a community where half the religiously affiliated Jews are Orthodox,
and some say he should not be speaking on their behalf.

“Orthodox Jews think people like Rabbi Sobel are bringing intermarriage
into the community,” said Rabbi David Weitman of the 600-family-strong
Sephardic congregation in Sao Paulo, Congregacao e Beneficencia Sefardi
Paulista-Beit Yaacov. The Orthodox community does not recognize Rabbi
Sobel’s conversions and says he encourages interfaith relationships by
reaching out to couples and urging the non-Jewish partner to convert.
Critics say the conversions are perfunctory, while Rabbi Sobel says his
synagogue’s conversions are preceded by a one-year course on Judaism,
participation by students in the holidays and their stated commitment to
raise their children as Jews. Although no recent studies are available,
Jewish leaders say the intermarriage rate in Brazil ranges from 40%-50%.

But Rabbi Sobel said he has bridged some of the divide with the Orthodox
community. He said he serves on the traditional burial society with
Orthodox rabbis, organized a public discussion on medical ethics attended
by Orthodox rabbis and will meet this week with the mayor-elect of Sao
Paulo, Marta Suplicy, to prevent a chasidic girls school from closing down
due to zoning laws.

“I think the responsibility of the rabbi, the most important thing, is to
protect and conserve the community. Rabbi Sobel does this a lot,” a member
of his synagogue, Gabriel Fechheimer, said.

Others are not convinced. “His connections in the government may help with
anti-Semitism but his `intermarriage’ is destroying the Jewish community,”
said Benjamin, a member of the traditional Sephardic community, which
comprises more than half of the Orthodox community in Sao Paulo. He would
not disclose his last name.

Raised in an Orthodox home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbi Sobel
moved to Brazil in 1970 to become the rabbinical assistant of CIP. It is a
move often compared to that of the late Marshall Meyer, an American-born
Conservative rabbi who moved to Argentina in 1959 and transformed the local
Jewish community religiously and politically. “I arrived with an idea that
wasn’t all that commonplace in Brazil: of opening up the congregation to
the society and involving them in the national, political and social
arenas,” Rabbi Sobel said.

Under the reign of military dictatorship in the 1970s, when the Jewish
federation kept a “low profile,” Mr. Milkewitz said, Rabbi Sobel spoke
against the terror and publicly defied the Brazilian government. A
characteristic action came in 1975, when the government announced that a
Jewish journalist, Vladimir Herzog — found hanging by a rope — had
committed suicide. Rabbi Sobel buried him in the center of the Jewish
cemetery instead of on the outskirts next to graves of other suicides, an
action which implied that the community believed he was killed by the
government. Some say this and similar actions allied him permanently with
the social democrats and the Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB),
who are in power today.

He has been married for 24 years to an American, Amanda Sobel, 47, and has
one daughter, Alisha, 17.

Rabbi Sobel believes his synagogue attracts as many members as it does
because it is both “traditional” and “open.” The synagogue provides a
strictly kosher menu, separate seating and mostly Hebrew liturgy, while
peppering the services with live music and welcoming all people to attend.

“In America I would be a rabbi of a congregation, at most,” Rabbi Sobel
said. “Brazil gives me the opportunity to be a rabbi beyond a
congregation.”

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