Sephardic converts give northern Brazil’s dwindling Jewish communities new life
RECIFE, Brazil (JTA) — Preparing to leave this city’s main Jewish community center, Sabrina Scherb peeks beyond its blast-proof gate into a quiet street strewn with branches and shredded mango fruits.
The debris, left over from an overnight tropical storm, is not what’s worrying Scherb, a 22-year-old university student and volunteer dance instructor.
“I’m looking to see if it’s safe,” she said, walking briskly to a friend’s parked car after giving an Israeli folk dance class. “I’m afraid all the time of robbery, or worse. I plan my life so I spend the least amount of time on the street. We all do.”
It’s a way of life that Scherb, whose mother was robbed and who had witnessed a robbery on the street once, shares with many residents of this city. Recife, Brazil’s fourth largest metropolis with a population of some 1.55 million, was ranked this year as the world’s 22nd most violent city. It has a murder rate 18 times higher than New York and double that of Sao Paulo.
Like many young Jews from Brazil’s predominantly Ashkenazi Jewish community, Scherb says she does “not see a future” for herself here because of crime and the effects of this South American nation’s 2014 financial crisis. Coupled with government corruption and political instability, these factors are prompting record numbers of Brazilian Jews to leave their country.
Such crises, along with assimilation, have depleted many South American Jewish communities in recent years — especially the smaller ones outside capital cities.
Yet unlike many counterpart communities, Recife’s is not in decline — partly thanks to the embrace of Judaism by hundreds of locals whose Sephardic ancestors came here centuries ago from Spain and Portugal amid anti-Semitic persecution in those countries.
Since 2015, at least 400 people with Sephardic ancestry have undergone Orthodox conversions to Judaism in northern Brazil – the area where their ancestors first arrived from Europe. In the state of Pernambuco, whose capital is Recife, these individuals established two Jewish congregations that operate their own synagogues and feature holiday events, including Passover seders.
In 2015, one group of returnees, the Recife-based Sephardic Association of Pernambuco, published its own Passover haggadah — an 80-page book with prayers in Hebrew and Portuguese. Its cover features an illustration of people of various races attending a seder, some wearing traditional Amerindian costumes.
“Twenty years ago, the return to Judaism was a dream. Now it’s simply our reality,” said Jefferson Linconn Martins dos Santos, president of Recife’s Aboab de Fonseca synagogue, one of the two new congregations. Over the past decade, more than a dozen congregations like it have been established across Brazil’s north, each with its own spiritual leader and ritual slaughterer producing kosher meat.
This development is unfolding in parallel to record levels of emigration by Jews. In Israel, the number of Brazilian immigrants has more than doubled, from an average of 249 per year in 2005-2014 to 619 over each of the past four years.