A Dwindling Community in the New World

Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

RECIFE, Brazil - This place should have been paradise, says Ivan Kelner, head of one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Americas. "No war, lots of water. The only problem is the people; no education," he adds, gesturing at the dilapidated shacks visible through the windshield of his car.

He parks outside Recife's old Jewish cemetery. He has come to attend the funeral of Salomao Jaroslavsky, a previous leader of the small Recife Jewish community and a celebrated educator, who died at the age of 89.

Despite its beautiful beaches, fine restaurants, the friendly and informal demeanor of the inhabitants and the fetching colonial-style buildings, Recife is no paradise. With 2,500 homicides a year, this northern metropolis of 3.5 million people is statistically one of Brazil's most dangerous cities. Police statistics show violent crime is higher here than in Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, and twice the national average.

Kelner, 55, was mugged at gunpoint twice in one month. He has lost four cars to thieves. Last month robbers mugged his 29-year-old son, Sammy, a lawyer. Nonetheless, says Kelner, standing outside the cemetery, "this is not a bad place to live in." Another member of the community later commented that "like in Israel's case, things look more intimidating to outsiders looking in."

But poverty is visible everywhere, from used syringes that junkies leave on the well-kept beaches to fishermen wading in saline water ditches in the shade of tall skyscrapers and modern shopping malls.

A bare-breasted woman, her blouse pulled up around her neck, lies on the sidewalk just outside the synagogue. An underdeveloped child suckles at her left nipple. Her eyes are shut. One of the synagogue's visitors bends down to hand her five reals, the equivalent of NIS 10. She opens two bloodshot eyes and palms the note before covering herself.

Outside the cemetery, children from nearby homes peer in through the graveyard gate. Wide-eyed, they inspect the crowd of 150 people who had gathered there in the tropical sun as they part with one of the pillars of their 1,400 member community.

They listen as a pastor - a personal friend of Jaroslavsky - eulogizes the deceased. The electric fence above the gate is meant to keep intruders out. Apparently, the metal Hebrew letters on the headstones are a favorite for petty thieves, though no one seems to know why.

The Jewish community here has no way of protecting itself from crime, says Kelner. Private security firms would be impractical, because the community's 400 families are scattered across town, and are not concentrated in any one area.

First synagogue in New World

Jews first settled here in 1636, when the area was a Dutch colony. They came here to escape religious persecution in their native Portugal and Spain. In 2002, a museum was built around the restored Kahal Tzur synagogue which was erected in 1637, the first synagogue in the New World.

In 1645, the Portuguese, joined by Brazilian sympathizers, started a guerrilla war that led to the defeat of the Dutch and, within a decade, the town's Jewish community disintegrated. Most of the Recife Jews left Brazil together with the Dutch, with 23 of these emigrants arriving in New Amsterdam, where they founded the first Jewish community of what later became the town of New York. Today, Recife's community is made up of Ashkenazi Jews, whose forbearers immigrated here in the 20th century from Europe to escape persecution.

Crime is a problem that Recife's Jewish community shares with the rest of the population. Poverty is not - which could support Kelner's observation that the vast majority of Jewish voters did not elect the mildly socialist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won a second term in 2006.

"Lula Da Silva is creating a factory which produces poverty," Kelner complains. He is referring to the president's far-reaching social reform which gives special allowances to needy families, including stipends for households with many children.

"The government should invest in education instead of producing more dependents. The real problem is ignorance, and poverty is its symptom," says Kelner. One of Lula da Silva's programs, entitled "Bolsa Familia," conditions financial aid on the requirement that recipient families send their children to school. But many others in Brazil think the government is not doing enough to keep children in school.

Anti-Zionism in Brazil

Brazil's Jewish population, which totals around 98,000, have other reasons to vote against Da Silva, according to Kelner, who owns a logo printing factor. "Anti-Semitism in Brazil is mostly connected to the anti-Zionism prevalent in extreme left-wing circles," he explains. "Now that a socialist is in power, leftist extremists have stepped up anti-Zionist propaganda because they feel stronger. And this translates immediately to anti-Semitism," he says.

Last year, a Jewish cemetery was desecrated in the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil's southeastern region. In 2006, Molotov cocktails were hurled at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Campinas, north of Sao Paulo. Kelner's counterpart in Sao Paulo received death threats that year. It was around that time that Kelner walked outside his home to see a swastika painted on an exterior wall.

These incidents and others like them, Kelner avers, came in retribution for Israel's actions in the second intifada and the Second Lebanon War. He says he fears the historical status of Recife's Jewish community could put it at special risk of such attacks.

In April, a state-funded social organization for residents from Rio de Janeiro's favelas - the shanty towns around Brazil's cities - published a manifesto against Brazil's security cooperation with Israel, accusing Jerusalem of exporting its method of "oppression" for use against Brazil's poor.

Poverty and lack of education, Kelner says, allow pro-Palestinian circles to agitate anti-Semitism in the favelas. He adds that favela demonstrations where people shout "viva Hamas" and "viva Hezbollah" are not uncommon.

"They're even shouting 'death to Israel.' What do they know about Israel or the Middle East in the favelas? Many of them can't even read. They're just responding to radical leftists and Palestinian propagandists," he alleges.

The funeral was not the only event that saddened Kelner that week. The following day, he attended a Catholic wedding. The groom was a Jew. "I have known him for many years. It really pained me to see him kneeling there beside the priest," Kelner said.

On the other hand, community members of all ages boast a good command of Hebrew and many - especially among the academics and free professionals who make up the younger generation - seem to hold strong Zionist views. Jewish Agency programs for youths and other Zionist programs appear to be popular among high-school graduates.

The community's leaders can also console themselves in another wedding, perfectly Jewish, which took place the same week at the city's Chabad center. The union of Haim Tzur, an ex-Israeli businessman from Amsterdam, with Recife-born businesswoman Evania Margolis was the community's second Orthodox marriage in five years.

But the ranks of the predominantly secular community of Recifean Jews diminishes every year, says Kelner, adding that attendance at Beit Chabad is not very high.

"I guess people don't find the religious system of rules too attractive," he explains. "Personally, I'm more interested in the instillment of Jewish principles of education - especially here."



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