Recife Jewish Community Shrinks but Fights to Keep Its School Open
Local leaders fear that Recife, Brazil, the birthplace of Judaism in the Americas, may lose its only Jewish school, the cornerstone of its community. The Colegio Israelita Moyses Chvarts, which serves a Jewish community of 1,400, is saddled with nearly $250,000 in debt. It might be forced to close at the end of the next term if administrators can’t find a way to reverse the school’s financial slide.
“We’ve been able to operate thanks to a miracle,” says Principal Marcelo Kozmhinsky, who doubles as the Jewish culture teacher. “We’ve done it exclusively with resources from the community.” Home to Kahal Zur Israel, which became the first synagogue in the Americas when it was founded in 1637, Recife played a key role in Jewish history in the New World. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Iberian Jews fled to Recife and other parts of northeastern Brazil to get away from the Inquisition. When Holland seized the town for more than two decades in the mid-17th century, many Jews from Amsterdam moved there. When the Portuguese reconquered it, some of those Jews escaped to New York, forming the first Jewish community there.
The core of today’s community in Recife traces its roots to Ashkenazim who left Russia and Romania in the early 20th century. Those Ashkenazi immigrants founded the school 85 years ago; in its early years, the language of instruction was Yiddish. Today the school offers courses in Jewish history and culture and Hebrew, as well as the standard secular curriculum. The school hosts celebrations of all the major Jewish holidays, and has enrolled as many as 350 students. “That’s a pretty high percentage of the community,” Kozmhinsky notes. “This school is not like other schools. It is the only institution in this community,” Rabbi Avraham Amitay says. Amitay, who is supported by the Jewish Agency for Israel, arrived in Recife last year, the first rabbi to live in the city for a long time.
“I looked for a central place to work, and I settled on the school,” he says. Recife does not have a functioning synagogue – the restored 17th century building serves as a cultural center open to tourists so Amitay holds Kabbalat Shabbat services in a classroom on Friday nights. Even more than they appreciate such services, parents appreciate the religious instruction provided to their children. “My wife is also Jewish, but she didn’t want to send our daughter to the school because we live 30-40 minutes away,” Ismar Kaufman says. But when their first-grader was able to chant the Friday night prayers at home for the first time, Kaufman’s wife changed her mind. “It was heartwarming,” he says.
The school’s enrollment now stands at 126. Assimilation, middle class flight from the school’s neighborhood to more upscale beach areas, and migration to Israel and other Brazilian urban centers such as Sao Paulo, are responsible for the decline. Brazil’s economic woes have reduced the middle class ability to pay private school tuition. The country’s drought-stricken, impoverished northeast, where Recife is located, has been particularly hard hit. Recife’s unemployment rate stood at 22.7 percent in March, according to DIESSE, a labor-funded think tank. The school’s tuition is more than $250 per month. That’s high by Brazilian standards, about 50 percent more than other top private institutions in Recife, Kaufman says.
The school offers an introductory rate of about $180 per month for new students. Most children receive “scholarships”, a euphemism for discounts. Unwilling to raise tuition even more, the school successfully turned to wealthier members of the community for help. Still, three years ago officials had to close the high school, and last year the administration began actively recruiting non-Jews for the preschool, elementary and middle school programs. “At the end of every year, there’s uncertainty about the following year,” Kaufman says. But community leaders refuse to give up. “We can’t let this community die,” says Boris Berenstein, president of the Pernambuco State Israelite Federation. “We have to invest in our present and in our future.”