Arthur meets with me near the Hebrew University, where he is studying education. He arrived here from Sao Paolo two years ago, and at the age of 25, he is on his way to a fulfilling life in Israel.
Growing up in the suburbs of Sao Paolo, Arthur was taught from a young age to honor his cultural heritage and his community. He joined the Jewish youth movement, Hazit HaNoar, and in his late teens, traveled to Israel for a year of study. In addition to Hebrew and Jewish studies, he volunteered in a kibbutz and worked with poor and disadvantaged immigrants primarily from African countries. The experience strengthened his already growing commitment to make Israel his permanent home. “I’ve dreamed of moving to Israel all my life,” Arthur states. “I want to make a difference in Israeli society.” He dreams of helping make major educational reforms by working within the system.
When Arthur arrived in Israel, along with 150 other Brazilian immigrants, the Jewish Agency’s Alpan Etzion Absorption Center immediately sprang into action and assisted him with housing and an educational stipend. They helped him with his continued Hebrew studies and assisted him in obtaining his Israeli identity card. When not in school, Arthur continues to do volunteer work with other immigrants and works in the Jewish Agency’s Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad. “While I miss friends and family in Brazil,” Arthur says, “I’m excited about my future here, and feel I’m ready to contribute to Israel’s future as well.”
The Jews in Brazil
The history of the Jews in Brazil dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus, when Gaspar da Gama accompanied one of Columbus’ admirals to Brazil in 1500. Jewish immigration was spurred by the Inquisition. Later Dutch settlers brought increased tolerance for Jewish religious expression. By 1636, the Kahal Zur synagogue was built in Recife, the Dutch capital. Dutch and Portuguese factions fought for control of the country for centuries, but the Jewish population largely avoided overt persecution. The last large wave of Jewish settlement came in the 1920s, when over 30,000 Western European Jews settled in Brazil.
Brazil today is home to the 10th largest Jewish population in the world, with estimates of up to 150,000. In the Sao Paolo area, over half of the country’s Jewish population lives a mostly comfortable, middle-class existence. More than 40 synagogues are active throughout the country, along with kosher supermarkets, kosher restaurants, and Jewish community groups. The Cofederacao Israelita do Brasil (CONIB) represents Brazil’s 12 federations and its more than 200 associations that are involved in Jewish education, charity, work, culture, and Zionist activity.
Brazilian Jews in Israel
The number of Latin American immigrants has grown by up to 15% a year recently, and more than 8,000 Brazilian Jews have settled here since 1948. Most Latin American immigrants to Israel today are young adults between the ages of 25 and 30.
Most Brazilian and other Latin American immigrants have integrated into the mainstream of society. There are few mainly Spanish-populated neighborhoods, Spanish-language newspapers or other reminders of a non-Israeli culture.
Arthur holds onto his South American roots through his choices in music and literature, but he actively embraces his larger Jewish identity in the homeland. He has several Latin American immigrant friends, including a recently married couple from Sao Paolo and a former Uruguayan rabbi. But he also mingles freely with students from a variety of nationalities. “I plan to contribute in every way I can to the larger Israeli society,” Arthur promises, and his enthusiasm and commitment are evident. As is the case with most recent Brazilian immigrants, he left South American not to escape conditions there, but to embrace his Jewish identity more fully.