Census gives good look at Sao Paulo Jewish community

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — New census data on Sao Paulo Jews may help Brazil's largest and most influential Jewish community plan more effectively.

Some 60,000 Jews live in Sao Paulo State, which has an overall population of 36 million, according to data released by the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation. That's fully one-third more than the most recent Brazilian government figures from 2000 that showed only 44,000 Jews in Sao Paulo.

Brazil's population of 170 million includes 120,000 Jews, according to the survey. Half are in Sao Paulo state, another 40,000 in Rio de Janeiro State, up to 15,000 in Porto Alegre and 5,000 in other parts of the country.

The census was a 20-month project sponsored primarily by the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital. "Our three basic objectives were to better know our community's social and demographic profile, respond more efficiently to the needs of affiliated members and institutions and have all the data available for future community plans," said Ricardo Oliveira, financial director of the Sao Paulo State Jewish Federation and general coordinator of the census.

Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola, who served as a consultant to the survey, called it "the most complete and updated Jewish counting ever performed in Latin America."

According to the census, 63 percent of Sao Paulo's Jews say they go to synagogue "only on High Holidays and for social events," while 13 percent say they "never" go to synagogue.

Another 14 percent go to synagogue weekly, and 3 percent go every day.

"The biggest challenge for the Jews of Sao Paulo is to keep their Jewish identity," said Israel's consul general in Sao Paulo, Medad Medina. "A major effort must be made, mainly toward the new generations. The percentage of Jewish students who study in Jewish schools is low.

"Among all the Jewish communities in Latin America, Sao Paulo can be considered a major reference because of its size and the importance of several of its members," he continued. "However, compared to the rest of the diaspora, it could be more active."

The community is closely guarding the results of the census, releasing few details to the media.

"We have been extremely cautious regarding all this surveyed data," said Alberto Milkewitz, the federation's institutional director. "We must be sensible when releasing any kind of information due to security and economic matters" — a euphemism for fears that Jews will be targeted for robbery or kidnapping because they are considered wealthy.

One problem the surveyors faced was people's fear of being counted.

"Some 200 people brought up the fact that the Judenrat" — Jewish councils established by the Nazis in countries they occupied — "held this type of information, which ended up being misused," Milkewitz said.

Some prefer to call the Sao Paulo survey a counting rather than a census. It was not done door to door, but by telephone and computer.

The methodology reduced expenses in half, Oliveira said.

The census-takers added Jewish institutions' files to the federation's own and cross-referenced them, turning up approximately 15,000 Jewish-sounding surnames, Oliveira explained.

Next, they used a state-of-the-art software program to check the information against state telephone company databases. A screening process then sifted the data out, producing 130,000 names of potential Jews to be verified.

Some Sephardic surnames — such as Oliveira, for example — can belong to both Jews and non-Jews. Ultimately, the poll-takers relied on respondents' self-definition as Jews to arrive at the final figure of 60,000, Oliveira said.

That data then was applied to digitized street maps, "and we had in our hands a complete cartography of Sao Paulo's Jews," Oliveira explained.

Despite his involvement in the project, Della Pergola expressed some skepticism about the figures.

"I would rather be a pessimist," he said. "There are certain problems with validating the information collected, including avoiding double counts of the same households."

But, he added, "Overall, the federation data seem to me to correspond quite well with those of the census. This at least provides a sort of control."

Oliveira and his staff were surprised by some of the findings. For example, they found that Jews live in 120 of the 650 cities in Sao Paulo state, a much wider distribution than expected.

Within the city of Sao Paulo, too, Jews are more widely spread than was previously known.

"One of our major goals is comprehensive community planning based on correct, real statistics, not assumptions," Milkewitz said. "We want the Jewish community to take advantage of this huge work."

A small group of professionals will update the data each month.