Brazilians struggling to get by despite economic upturn

sao paulo, brazil | In the working-class Bom Retiro neighborhood of South America’s largest city, an inconspicuous sign in Hebrew and Portuguese stands out from the abundance of Korean-owned shops along Rua Ribeiro de Lima.

The sign welcomes visitors to the Instituicao Beneficente Israelita Ten Yad, a charity that since 1992 has offered hot meals and spiritual hope to thousands of impoverished Brazilian Jews.

Isaac Guinsberg, 69, is a regular at Ten Yad, having lunched there nearly every day for the last 10 years.

“I used to work for the chevra kadishah,” the burial society, he said. “I received quite a good salary and didn’t want to come here, but it wasn’t enough to live on.”

Ten Yad is one of several Jewish charities fighting hunger in Brazil, a vast nation of 175 million people.

The devaluation of Brazil’s currency, the real, in January 1999, wiped out the savings of many middle-class Jewish families. For the first time in their lives, many were forced to turn to charity to survive.

Although the nation’s economy has improved, the status of many Brazilian Jews has not.

“We always knew that most of Brazil’s Jews were middle class, but this last crisis was the most difficult for the community because the standard of living dropped dramatically,” said Jayme Blay, president of the Federacao Israelita do Estado de Sao Paulo, an umbrella group of 55 institutions serving the 60,000 Jews of Sao Paulo state.

“When the crisis arrived, many Brazilian Jews didn’t have enough money to live through the crisis and wait until better times,” he said. “The ones who lost their income cannot benefit at all from the improving situation, because right now they have to pay their debts, solve their problems, rebuild their lives and look for other jobs.”

Rising poverty has put a dent in synagogue membership. Sao Paulo has about 20 to 25 synagogues operating year-round. Most of them are Conservative or Reform. About 15 percent of Brazil’s Jews attend Orthodox services.

Last year, the Sao Paulo state government chose Ten Yad to administer a hot-lunch program for indigent Brazilians.

Every morning at around 10, a line forms outside a rented storefront in Baixada, an impoverished neighborhood of Sao Paulo, where Ten Yad serves about 1,700 meals a day. The line often stretches for blocks as homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics and Brazilians who simply are down on their luck wait for the meal, which costs about 35 cents.

“Since we are Jews, we have to do something for the local population too,” Weitman said.


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