Brazils Jews face 60% intermarriage rate

RIO DE JANEIRO — Anete Hulak's hearing aids and wrinkled skin give her away: She's no spring chicken.

Yet she's as spunky as many Brazilians 30 years younger.

She wears a modern sports watch on her wrist, an impish smile on her lips and a sparkle in her 98-year-old eyes when she says a Yiddish renewal can save the Jewish communities here and in the United States.

"It's the one undercurrent that keeps Jews together," she insists.

"I'm old and won't get to see it, but I know that Yiddish and tradition will make a comeback."

It's not quite that simple, of course.

Yiddish is rapidly dying out, and more and more Brazilian Jews are intermarrying.

Rabbi Henry Sobel, head of the 1,800-member-family Congregacio Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, a city that ostensibly is the Jewish capital of this economically stressed South American country, puts the figure at about 60 percent.

"Assimilation, oy gevalt. We feel very threatened by the intermarriage ratio," says the 57-year-old Hebrew Union College-educated Sobel, whom many consider the spokesman for Brazilian Jews.

Rabbi Nilton Bonder, 43, who leads the Jewish Congregation of Brazil, a Conservative synagogue with 550 member families in Rio de Janeiro, has a slightly lower take.

"There are no accurate numbers," says the author of 12 books in Portuguese. "One core group is those affiliated with synagogues. They send their kids to Jewish day schools, pay dues to Jewish institutions. Their rate of intermarriage is probably lower than that in the United States.

"For the others, the unaffiliated, it's maybe 80 to 90 percent.

"The average of the two groups is probably 40 to 50 percent — comparable to the United States."

Intermarried or not, Brazil's Jews cling to tradition. But their definition of the word fits a "Fiddler on the Roof" show tune more than a concept embraced by U.S. or international Orthodoxy.

Boris Berenstein heads the Jewish federation for Pernambuco, a northern Brazilian state that includes the city of Recife, where Hulak and 400 Jewish families reside. "The most important thing is not the religion," he says, "but identifying Jewishly."

Berenstein is a generous, warm 51-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair who attended an all-day Jewish school, became a bar mitzvah and celebrated Jewish holidays. Now he doesn't observe Shabbat, and his second wife is a non-Jew.

All four of his children have had a Jewish education, however.

Berenstein's Jewish quotient is not atypical of many in Brazil's smaller ethnic enclaves. But he views neither secularism nor assimilation as the crucial factor. The biggest problem, according to Berenstein, is "insufficient money to keep up the Jewish schools," which he calls the "heart of the community."

Somehow, though, that community ferreted out $500,000 to change the site of the Western Hemisphere's oldest synagogue, Kahal Zur Israel, into a shiny new museum to pay homage to Jewish history and to attract tourism. The Recife building was built in 1637 on was then called the Street of the Jews. After most Jews fled in 1654 for the U.S. colonies when the Portuguese halted Dutch rule and forced both the Jewish and Dutch populations to leave, the synagogue was turned into a Catholic institution, then respectively into a boutique, a bank and an electrical materials shop.

Today, its spit-and-polish looks contrast with Brazil's Jewish schools, which face accelerating financial trouble.

Marcello Kozmhinsky is administrative director of the Colegio Israelita Moyses Chvarts, a Pernambuco day school set back from the street by a 12-foot-high wall to protect those inside not from anti-Semitism (which is extremely rare in Brazil) but from crime and violence (which apparently are not so uncommon).

Almost all the $150 monthly tuition from 160 students goes to the 40 part-time teachers, who are paid by the hour. Kozmhinsky is bald, slim and unusually candid.

"With time passing," he says, the country's Jews are "getting farther and farther from their Jewish roots. Brazil is a country that integrates a lot — 60 to 70 percent intermarriage — and the Jewish people are one more well-integrated community."

The mikvah housed in the school doesn't get used a lot.

Racife's sole rabbi, a black-hatted, black-suited Lubavitcher, fights the integration through Orthodox rituals. His Friday night services at Beit Chabad draw 25 men, a dozen women and three children. One of them is Hulak's great-nephew, Allen Berger, who is visiting from Washington, D.C.

Berger, 43, says most Brazilian Jews reject Chabad's strict value system. They prefer a tradition, he explains, in which "high holidays are celebrated, they have bar and bat mitzvahs, they wear a Mogen David, they put up mezuzahs, they wear their Jewishness on their sleeves."

Fabio Oliveira, 31, may epitomize that breed of Jew. A strikingly handsome blue-eyed, dark-haired marketing manager for two restaurants and a nightclub, he was programmed as a boy to be Jewish — brit, holiday celebrations, bar mitzvah — but it didn't take enough to make him practice the religion.

At 13, he left home to work in the Amazon region, way up north. Now he wears an oversized heirloom Star of David on his neck and a six-pointed silver star ring, and he carries a laminated traveler's prayer in Hebrew that his parents gave him (though he can't read it).

He packs a kippah to wear at unspecified "Jewish events" and tells visiting reporters his mother taught him to say l'chaim, but he doesn't really know what it means.

He's been dating a non-Jew, he admits, but notes with obvious pride that "she's willing to bring up the kids Jewish."

Some in the community include in their count of members-of-the-tribe all spouses of Jews, even if they haven't converted.

Eitan Surkis, 40-year-old Israeli consul general of Rio, says the total Jews in Brazil numbers between 120,000 and 150,000. "You may hear bigger figures, but it's wishful thinking."

The bulk live in San Paulo (60,000 to 70,0000) and Rio (30,000 to 40,000), but they are almost invisible in a nation of 158 million, a country that's 90 percent Catholic.

"The income, especially in the middle class, has been dropping among Jews," Surkis continues. "People are losing jobs, assets. It has to do with the general economic conditions, but it's affecting Jews. Diminishing philanthropy, in numbers and amounts. It's very worrisome.

"Someone told me the other day that the richer Jews are going to Miami, the poor ones to Israel. I don't know if that's true or not.

"Impoverishment causes alienation from the community. It starts with not having money to pay to join Jewish organizations; then they just want to be alone.

"Judaism has for many thousand of years of years been one of community. Here, the Jews are losing that."

Sao Paulo's Sobel would challenge that view. A liberal rabbi whose synagogue is affiliated with both the Conservative and Reform movements, he contends his congregants, who also are "really concerned with their Yiddishkeit," have exponentially boosted their sense of community and their social action because of the economic strains.

"More and more people are coming to me for financial aid, for scholarships, to not pay synagogue dues, to pay for the chevra kadisha for burial. I know the poverty that is in Argentina is beginning to be a problem in Brazil.

"And if someone who is jobless comes to synagogue, we have a job bank. We network to get them one."

The day school at Sobel's synagogue has also become a boarding school for kids whose families can't afford to keep them at home, and the congregation provides food and clothing for the very poor.

The rabbi, whose dirty blond hair flops over his blue eyes and whose legs pump wildly when he's seated and speaking intensely about his topic, excitedly clutches the forearms of the two men flanking him. It's not just the impoverished that his synagogue concentrates on, he says; educational programming is the linchpin.

After-school sessions for 400 kids are flourishing. So are a Zionist youth network, a scout movement for boys and girls "to give a context of Jewish values," and a summer camp program.

"My priorities are clearly defined as a rabbi — to make Jews more Jewish."

Sobel also kvells about a weekly Jewish magazine that covers the entire country, and Hebraica, a combination Jewish community center-social club in Sao Paulo with 15,000 members.

He spouts the figure soberly but quickly tempers his interview with humor.

Asked about his critics, he says they charge him with speaking "Portugese with an American accent to retain my charm. They even say I take lessons to keep my accent."

Rio's Rabbi Sergio Margulis, who sports graying hair and a boyish face, mirrors Sobel's positivity. A graduate of HUC in Cincinnati, the 39-year-old has positioned his 800 member-family synagogue, ARI, shorthand for Associacao Religiosa Israelita, as a "liberal," Reform-leaning Brazilian amalgam.

Females and males pray together. Women can read from the Torah. But men must wear a kippah and all prayers are in Hebrew.

Patrilineal descent is frowned upon, and the child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother must convert. The ocean, however, is used as a mikvah.

"Each day of the week," says Margulis, one of the successors to Roberto Graetz, now senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, "something is happening here — many, many lectures, ranging from college professors to Amos Oz. Each week 2,000 participate in something."

The 2,000 must, however, enter premises protected by a wall with barbed wire atop it. "It was built after the bombing in Argentina," explains Margulis. "Before that, the synagogue was open to the street."

But there's been no trouble, he adds.

On the other hand, he echoes many others regarding Jewish impoverishment. "There are two kinds of poor Jews," he maintains, "those who were poor forever, and those who belonged to the middle class and are now unemployed or underemployed. For the first, we give baskets of food and clothes; for the others, we help them find a job."

In the latter category, he says, "many Jews who became poor hide themselves. They are ashamed."

Ilana Belaciano, assistant manager at the five-star Inter-Continental Rio, is a Jew born and raised in that city. She's concerned about a different kind of impoverishment — a landscape without enough Jewish men.

"What I see," she says, "is friends of mine have difficulty meeting other Jews. That's why a lot of Jewish women end up with Catholic men."

Although she describes herself as "traditional but not religious," she regularly attends a Lubavitch service — "for meeting other people who are Jewish. It's the most popular. They have sushi at Kiddush sometimes."

Bonder's synagogue and others like it, she contends, "are for my parents and people their age, not many my age. But I'm 27 and looking for a husband."

Bonder, who was ordained by the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as well as Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of the Renewal movement, laments that smaller Jewish synagogues and communities in Brazil "are disappearing."

Brazilians, he says, "are very easy-going socially, a melting pot. Jews really haven't benefited from that."