If I Were a Brazilian Rabbi... (May 2016)

image: The Yad Eliyahu Community of Goiania, Goiás, in Brazil, celebrating Havdalah in 2015  (Photo Courtesy of Daneel Schaechter)

The Yad Eliyahu Community of Goiania, Goiás, in Brazil, celebrating Havdalah in 2015 (Photo Courtesy of Daneel Schaechter)

        As I embarked on my year-long Fulbright Fellowship in February 2015, I had no notion of how much time I would be spending with the emerging Jewish communities of Brazil. I was set on teaching English at the Federal University of Pernambuco and interning at a local startup, and assumed that I would do a little Kulanu work in my free time. I had been told that Recife, my future home, had a sizable Jewish community with a thriving Chabad. As the Latin American Coordinator for Kulanu, I had done my due diligence on a few of the emerging communities across Brazil, some of which claim to be the descendents of B’nei Anusim[1]. On my way to Brazil, I had even brought down a Sefer Torah for the Shil do Tatuape, a community in São Paulo, and tefillin and siddurim to another community in Goiania, Yad Eliyahu. As a naïve first timer to Brazil, I did not realize the extent to which these emerging communities were popping up. Just as Kulanu has worked with one or two communities per country in various Latin American countries, I assumed that it would be the same in Brazil.

The incredible part about this movement in Brazil is that Kulanu and I are not alone in our quest to help. Early on in my journey, a friend and B’nei Anusim activist Rabbi “More” Gilberto Venturas cited research showing that the number of potential B’nei Anusim descendants in Brazil could be upwards of 20 million individuals.

Of course, only a small percentage of them are actively trying to return to their roots and many of the individuals in these communities have no proof of their Jewish ancestors. Rabbi More Venturas is an Orthodox non-pulpit rabbi and educator from São Paulo (where upwards of 50% of the mainstream Brazilian Jewish community lives), and has worked within the mainstream Jewish community to try to increase knowledge of the existence of these burgeoning groups within his own country.  He also teaches online Judaism courses to many of these individuals seeking to return to their roots and many others who have recently abandoned Christianity.

Another Brazilian activist and chazan (cantor), Sami Cytman, similarly has one leg within the mainstream Jewish community and one leg in the Brazilian emerging Jewish scene. One last big supporter on the ground has been Rabbi Uri Lam who became interested in Kulanu several years ago while he was finishing his studies at Hebrew Union College. He has been able to mentor various individuals whose religious tendencies are closer to Reform Judaism, all while recently assuming a rabbinic pulpit position in Belo Horizonte.

My excitement to help all of these emerging communities soon grew more complicated as internal political views and religious differences divided various groups and I often was asked to play the tough role of mediator. One thing I struggled with, within both the mainstream Jewish communities and these emerging groups, was the prominent location of both Israeli and Brazilian politics within the prayer space. In my own religious experience in the United States, I rarely see this mixture. One of these Brazilian emergent communities broke up due to right-wing versus left-wing political strife, which crippled its very existence. Another group struggled with finances and trust and unfortunately couldn’t surpass these issues, sadly dividing into several smaller factions.

I have spent a good amount of time trying to navigate another unforeseen complication, the difficulty of achieving conversions in Brazil. I had assumed that the mainstream Jewish communities would be unwelcoming towards these newcomers as I have experienced in a majority of my previous experiences in Latin America.

The Orthodox establishment of Brazil has prohibited Orthodox conversions within Brazil other than a few rare exceptions, and requires that studies and the final bet din almost always take place in Israel or the USA. What this means for a majority of the individuals from the emerging communities who are seeking conversion is that they could not even dream about having an Orthodox conversion because of the prohibitive time and costs.

image: Keziya Jacobi (front center) and women of Bene Ephraim during Shabbat morning service  (Photo by JUDI KLOPER)

Daneel (left) celebrating Sukkot with the COJUBA, the Communicade Judaica
de Ubatuba(Photo Courtesy of Daneel Schaechter)

Additionally, the Orthodox conversion process would most likely ignore anyone outside of Brazil’s three largest cities. Other Conservative and Reform rabbis in Brazil have generally not been particularly accepting of these newcomers either, often because of their lesser financial situation or because many have prior experience in Evangelical or Messianic groups.

Most of these rabbis feel pressure from their communities not to help the individuals from these emerging communities, and prioritize converting non-Jewish spouses of Jewish community members. There also tends to be an attitude such as “Oh well, you guys live in a city a few hours away from our synagogue so I can’t really help you, even though there is no rabbi in your city” from many of the Reform and Conservative rabbis.

One of the few exceptions is Rabbi Alexandre Leone, a JTS-ordained Brazilian rabbi of B'nei Chalutzim (Alphaville, São Paulo), who has gotten the buy-in from his community to convert some of the individuals from these emerging communities. He has a very hands-off approach, of course requiring candidates to be knowledgeable, but Rabbi Leone himself does not have the capacity to teach and prepare the candidates, many of whom live in faraway cities such as Fortaleza, Eunapolis, and Recife.

All of this being said, I certainly understand where many of these rabbis are coming from. The mainstream Jewish community in Brazil (not counting these emerging groups) is estimated at 120,000, and is generally quite wealthy. Increased aliyah over the last few years (due to Brazil’s financial crisis and safety issues) and a high rate of intermarriage/assimilation have turned the mainstream Jewish community even more paranoid and fearful of outsiders. If I were a Brazilian rabbi, I would initially also be scared to realize that as of 2016, there are currently a few thousand Brazilians who have started practicing Judaism independently over the last decade and are trying to find rabbis willing to convert them.

At times, I have sometimes doubted whether these individuals have actually abandoned their Christian pasts and are truthful about their journeys towards Judaism. Out of the hundreds of individuals I have had the honor of meeting, there have been a handful for which a small red light went off in my head, and I thought to myself, “Hmm, even though he’s wearing a kippah and tzitzit, some of the things he’s saying are questionable.”

Then there are those that have completely changed their theology and only believe in HaShem and the mitzvot, but still have remnants of the evangelical world in which they grew up (e.g. a religious fundamentalism, saying Baruch HaShem in every other sentence, hatred towards Palestinians and Arabs). If I were a Brazilian rabbi, initially I’d be a bit worried, but I wouldn’t allow those fears to stop me.

The stories that I’ve heard about the collapse of so many Messianic “Jewish” communities across Brazil are impressive. The Congregação Israelita da Nova Aliança (CINA), one of the strongest Messianic church “synagogues,” has completely fallen apart in many cities across Brazil over the last few years as many of its members have felt more affinity towards Jewish traditions than to their Christian theology. Imagine thirty-five people in the small city of Navegantes, Santa Catarina, who decided over several months that they no longer believed in Jesus as their savior and wanted to start practicing Judaism sincerely. I understand why many of the mainstream Brazilian rabbis are scared, but they need not be. Instead of Chabad shutting its doors to such newcomers, or the Conservative rabbis in the closest city apologizing that there is nothing they can do for these individuals, wouldn’t it be better for the future of the Brazilian Jewish community to try to welcome new sincere people into established communities, or help orient them and train them to be able to start new synagogues?

image:

Daneel welcomed in Sa?o Paulo by Rabbi More Venturas (second
from right), Cantor Sami Cytman (first on right), and members of
the emerging community B’nei Avraham, March 2015 (Photo Courtesy of Daneel Schaechter)

Yes, they often don’t have the same learning resources that those of us who grew up Jewish had, and yes, they have probably learned their Judaism from research on Google and some Skype classes with Rabbi Venturas or Sami Cytman, but that is all that is available to them.  While they may be confused or mistaken at times about Jewish questions, if we close our synagogue doors on them, they will continue to be misled.

However, there is reason to be hopeful about the furthering of the plight of these emerging communities and their integration into broader Brazilian Jewish society. During a visit to Brasilia in August 2015, Rabbi Uri Lam and Cantor Sami Cytman sat down with the board of the mainstream Jewish Association of Brasilia (ACIB) to explain that there was a formerly-Messianic emerging community only a few miles from the ACIB Jewish Community Center. The board was receptive, but explained their fear that without a spiritual leader or rabbi at the ACIB, they were not quite sure how they could advance in terms of integration or conversion. While that question still has not been fully answered, I’m proud to say that many members of the emerging community have begun to frequent the ACIB’s cultural events, which is certainly a first step.

Another similar scenario recently occurred when the São Paulo-based emerging community, formerly called B’nei Avraham, was permitted to join the prayer services at the Bet El Conservative synagogue. As sad as it may seem, this community which Kulanu had helped has lost its lease and now ceases to exist. Yet I view the acceptance of many individuals from B’nei Avraham into the mainstream Conservative synagogue in São Paulo as a triumph. I hope this is the first step for many emerging groups that find themselves in cities with established Jewish communities.

Challenges certainly lie ahead in the overall acceptance of these groups by the mainstream Brazilian Jewish community. It truly saddens me to see several of these Brazilian converts practice Orthodox Judaism flawlessly, but not be able to convert with an Orthodox bet din in Brazil, instead hoping one day to try to travel to Israel to “officialize” their Conservative conversions, as they often call it.

I wholeheartedly believe it is in the best interest of Brazil’s Jewish future to start working with these groups, from Fortaleza and Recife to Goiania, Navegantes, and São Paulo. The status quo is not sustainable. There must be a better way than a few non-Orthodox Brazilian rabbis charging the equivalent of US $75-100 monthly for a conversion process in a country where the monthly average salary is less than US $650.

I look forward to a day when Brazilians, regardless of their financial statuses and past religions, will be able to overcome current prejudices and partake in serious and valid conversion processes across Brazil, strengthening both Brazil’s and the Diaspora’s Jewish community.

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1  B’nei Anusim literally means ‘the children of the forcibly converted’ and is commonly used as an alternative to the term Marrano or Crypto Jew.