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BRAZILIAN JEWRY — A CONCISE HISTORY
Jewish Gen Bibliography — Resources, Marc Raizman

LANGUAGE

If you are here just to learn whether Jews know how to samba, let me assure you that they do. During carnival time in Brazil, the Brazilian TV stations generally show scenes from Israel of Brazilian Jews dancing samba on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Let me tell you about my credentials for this presentation. I was born in Porto Alegre, in the southernmost Brazilian state.  In addition to my knowledge of Brazilian Jewish history, this presentation is based partially on the writings of my late father who in 1937 wrote a well-respected book entitled "Historia dos Israelitas no Brasil".   [The History of the Jews in Brazil]. (This is the book.)    He wrote this book both in Portuguese and Yiddish.   My dad was a journalist, edited a number of Brazilian Yiddish newspapers and was a part-time correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).

One important comment is needed here. The word "Israelitas," meaning Jews who are descendants of the tribe of Israel, is preferred to the word "Judeu" or "Judio," meaning Jews in Portuguese and Spanish, respectively.

Unfortunately, in both languages, the word has bad connotations. "Judiar" means to hurt or to make someone suffer, to mock or abuse. Judeu means to be dishonest when dealing with others.  (As you know, there is a similar usage in English. "to jew someone down.")

The Brazilian Deputy Chamber a few years ago voted to eliminate these negative definitions from national dictionaries, and the publishers of dictionaries did so.

But that doesn't mean that the words have disappeared from common usage.   On the other hand, I must say that most Brazilians who use these words often don't realize the origin of the word.

There is yet another problem.    Some people in Latin America are confused as to who is an Israelita and who is an Israeli, and what that difference is.

DISCOVERY - 1500

To begin, a Jewish presence in the Western Hemisphere goes back to its discovery by Columbus. On his first trip, with three ships and 88 sailors, Columbus' crew had six Jews who had converted to Christianity, the so-called conversos in Spanish, also called cristão novos in Portuguese.   In addition, there were six practicing Jews among the crew.  Indeed, historians believe that the first man to set foot on the new continent was Luis de Torres, a converso.   In one of his letters, Columbus refers to de Torres as "one who had been a Jew and knows Hebrew and some Arabic."

In the 1400s and 1500s, Spain and Portugal were the major maritime powers of the world.  By the late 1400s, Portuguese navigators had set foot in every corner of Western Africa.  It was then that the Portuguese crown directed Vasco da Gama to follow the African coast to the end and see where it might lead him and his ships.

Da Gama was successful in reaching the Cape of Good Hope, where he turned northward into the Indian Ocean and reached Madagascar, Ceylon, and India.  What wasn't Da Gama's surprise to find a "white" man serving as an advisor to one of the local potentates.   Da Gama's reaction was to assume that this man was a spy, and the Portuguese proceed to torture him.  Da Gama then decided that he could use someone who spoke the local languages and knew his way around, so he decided to take this man back with him to Lisbon.

This man was a Jew whom historians believe came from what is now Yugoslavia.

If such was the case, he was probably a sephardic Jew.  He had first converted to Islam and now in da Gama's hand, he became a Catholic, adopting the name of Gaspar da Gama as homage to his new boss.

In Lisbon, Gaspar was a success.  Being a great story teller, he is said to have entranced the King of Portugal.  He could go on at length describing the riches of the new lands discovered by Vasco da Gama.   It is also possible that he did this to save his neck.

By 1500, the Portuguese and the Spaniards realized that the world was indeed round, but they had no idea of the distances involved.   They never gave up the idea that it might be easier and faster to reach the so-called Indies by going west, instead of traveling around South Africa.  The Portuguese sailor who finally proved this dream a reality in 1520 was Fernão de Magalhaes.  In the English world we know him as Magellan.

In 1500, the Portuguese crown told Pedro Alvares Cabral to take his ships as far west as he could to see if they would find a route to India.   Accompanying Cabral on this trip as the interpreter was Gaspar da Gama.  When they reached the land that would eventually be called Brazil, the Portuguese thought they had landed on a huge island.   The first man to set foot on this new land was Gaspar, but alas, his knowledge of Indian dialects - from India - was of no value in trying to talk to Brazilian "Indians."

Overall, Gaspar played a significant role in setting up commercial treaties with Asian potentates, treaties that turned out to be extremely profitable to the Portuguese.  He died at age 80, unusually old for that time.

The newly discovered land was first called Santa Cruz, Holy Cross.   Later it was changed to Brazil because of the availability of Pau Brazil, a wood that provided a dye which the Portuguese crown sold at a very high profit to the textile mills of Flanders in Belgium.

The key man in this operation was Fernando de Noronha, a Portuguese converso with many contacts in the Lisbon court.  He leased the new land from the crown and agreed to pay royalties in the form of Pau Brazil, as well as anything precious he might find in the new land.

Some historians suggest that de Noronha's leasing scheme was an effort on his part to help Portuguese Jews by creating a place for them to live away from the growing threats of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition.   It is said that of the 300 men who sailed with Noronha to Brazil, the vast majority were Jews, both practicing and converted to Catholicism.

In 1494, the Pope in Rome, seeking to avoid a possible conflict between Spain and Portugal over the newly discovered lands, drew an imaginary line, a north-south meridian, and stated that anything east of this line would belong to Portugal and anything west of it would be Spain's.

This imaginary line, which the Pope set at 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, became known as the Tordesillas line.  It gave Portugal an area that was about 1/5th of the area Brazil currently occupies today.   This meridian today falls approximately at the 50 degree longitude west.

In Brazil, the Portuguese settlers chose to ignore the Pope's meridian.   They had been living on a narrow coastal strip and couldn't help wondering what they might find inland.  Gold, silver and precious stones were what they had in mind, but failing these they considered capturing Indians to use as slaves.

These colonizers were called Bandeirantes because they carried a bandeira, which is Portuguese for flag.   The records suggest that many of them were conversos or had names that hinted at their Jewish background.  At this time, the Spanish were busy with the Incas on the west coast of South America on the other side of the Andes and didn't have the men to serve as a presence to keep the Bandeirantes off the land that the Pope had granted them.  Thus, the Bandeirantes were responsible for increasing Brazil's land mass manyfold beyond the Pope's allocation.

The Bandeirantes went as far as they could, but the Andes proved to be an unsurmountable obstacle.

By the late 1400s and early 1500s, Jews in Spain were told that they either had to convert or leave the country.  Because the Portuguese crown was more liberal, many Spanish Jews opted to move to Portugal.  But about that time, the daughter of the King of Spain became engaged to the son of the King of Portugal, and Queen Isabella of Spain demanded that as a condition for the wedding to take place, the Portuguese had to expel its Jews.  That is intriguing because there are historians who believe that Isabella's husband, Ferdinand, may have had some Jewish blood.

It was at this juncture that Portuguese Jews began leaving for other countries.   A large number of them chose The Netherlands, which, while Calvinist, permitted religious freedom to its subjects.  Other Portuguese Jews chose instead to remain Portuguese subjects, but decided to live as far as possible from Lisbon in the country's far-flung colonies.  Many chose Brazil while others went to Portuguese colonies in Africa and Asia.

João Ramalho is a interesting example a Portuguese who migrated to Brazil.  He was shipwrecked in the neighborhood of what is today the city and port of Santos / São Vincente.  It is possible that he was a crew member of a Portuguese ship travelling to India.  There are those who say that he may have reached Brazil even before it was discovered by Pedro Alvarez Cabral on April 21, 1500.

Ramalho became a friend of the local Indian chief and married one of his daughters.

Was Ramalho Jewish?  He did several things that suggested that he might have been.

One thing historians agree on is that he was illiterate.  In my father's book, there a number of Ramalho signatures from documents he "signed."  Instead of using a cross, which was the standard signature of illiterates, Ramalho chose to write what looks like a Hebrew "caf."  My father argued that it was really a "raisch," an "r."  There are other situations in Ramalho's life that support my father's theory.  For example, he was always quarreling with the Jesuits who had founded the city of São Paulo, located on the plateau above Santos.  The two cities competed with each other.  When Ramalho was dying, he refused the final sacraments of a Catholic priest.

DUTCH OCCUPATION - 1624-1654

About 1600, the Dutch decided that they needed a West Indies Company.  They had been running the very successful and profitable East Indies Company, which specialized in spices and exotic products from the Far East and Oceania, These were stock companies, meaning that shares were sold to interested investors. The records show that one-tenth of the subscribers to the West Indies Company had Portuguese Jewish names. The West Indies Company had extensive plans. Some involved exploiting New Amsterdam, now called New York, and many islands of the Carribean.  Their plans also included invading the northern hump of Brazil, an area known as a major producer of sugar.

Mauritius, the prince of Nassau, was chosen to head the Dutch expedition.  He was joined by about 200 Jews who saw in it a golden business opportunity. The Dutch soldiers succeeded in defeating the Portuguese and thus began the Dutch presence in what is today the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil.

The Jews who came with the invading expedition and on subsequent trips, established a variety of businesses in New Holland, which is what the Dutch called their new territory.

Many became owners of sugar mills. However, sugar cane harvesting is very intensive labor and Brazilian Indians turned out to be unreliable workers.  To find the necessary workers, the mill owners turned to Africa for slaves. The West Indies Company controlled the shipment of slaves because it owned the ships. But once on the ground in Brazil, Jews were responsible for the selling and buying of black slaves, often at prices that were four and five times what they had paid the West Indies Company for them.

There is some historical evidence that slaves working for Jewish mill owners fared somewhat better than those working for Christian owners. It is said that those working for Jews had the Sabbath off.

The Dutch in New Holland continued to allow religious freedom, as in The Netherlands. As a result of this policy, many Portuguese conversos  who lived in the Portuguese controlled areas of Brazil moved to New Holland and dropped their forced conversion to become full-fledged Jews once again.

One Dutch survey during those years listed the New Holland population as 12,703.

Of these, 2,890 were white and half of them were said to be Jews in the city of Recife.  Most of the Jews who were merchants could be found on the Rua dos Judeus - street of the Jews. It was on this street that the first synagogue in the Western Hemisphere was built in 1630.  It was called Kahal sur Israel,  the rock of Israel.  Its first rabbi was Isaac Aboab da Fonseca who came from Amsterdam to lead this congregation.

The location of this synagogue was vaguely known, but about two years ago, a historian employed by the Municipality of Recife decided to look into the matter. He found the synagogue where it was supposed to be, except that the street name had been changed to Rua do Bom Jesus, the street of the Good Jesus.

His research also established that the building next to the synagogue included a mikve, the ceremonial bath. A couple of rabbis were asked to check the locale, and they confirmed that this was an honest-to-goodness mikve. In olden times, when piped water did not exist, mikves had to be established where there was running water, namely by a river. This was no problem in Recife. Seven rivers crossed the city before reaching the ocean.  Recife is still known as the Venice of Brazil.

For years the Dutch enclave prospered, but then the West Indies Company lost interest in the Pernambuco colony. One reason was that the Dutch were at war with the English.  The other reason was that Pernambuco's New Holland wasn't as profitable as other areas under the West Indies Company control.  Promised shipmens of goods and new soldiers failed to materialize, and eventually the Portuguese were able to defeat the Dutch and reconquer the territory.

The Dutch occupation lasted 30 years, from 1624 to 1654.

In the Treaty of Guararapes following this war, the defeated Dutch were allowed to go home. While some 150 Jewish families chose to return to Amsterdam, many chose instead to move to other Dutch-controlled areas of the Western Hemisphere.  They moved to Curacao, Dutch Guyana, Barbados,  Bermuda and other islands of the Caribbean.

Some 23 of the Pernambuco Jews chose to travel to the then New Amsterdam, today's New York.  Peter Stuyvesant was governor of New Amsterdam at the time of the arrival of the 23. He didn't like Jews and asked permission from the West Indies Company to expel them. He was, after all, an employee of the West Indies Company. He got back a letter from Amsterdam telling him to treat "our shareholders" with consideration.  The English captured New Amsterdam in 1664. When this happened, these families swore allegiance to the British crown.

In the Guararapes treaty, the Portuguese promised to respect the religious freedom of those who chose to remain in Pernambuco under Portuguese control.  The Portuguese went back on their word, however, and the Jews who stayed on were later charged with heresy.

t has always been assumed that all Jews who had lived under the Dutch had been accounted for.  In more recent times, however, historians have come across populations in Brazil's interior that have "quaint" habits or practices.  These small and often isolated groups can't explain why they light candles on Friday, why they read only the Old Testament, why they do not eat pork or shellfish, and refrain from eating bread during Easter.

In the village of Cairó, in the state of Rio Grande do Norte, the residents do all these things and claim it is tradition. A couple of rabbis recently wrote a Ph.D. paper about the village and its population.  While Cairó's practices do not prove that these folks have a Jewish heritage background, it certainly makes one wonder where they learned them.

THE PORTUGUESE INQUISITION - 1700

Now we come to the Portuguese Inquisition and its impact on Brazil.  The Inquisition never established an office in Brazil but its long arm reached there.  If one person didn't happen to like another for whatever reason, he could always denounce him or her as "judaizante," meaning someone who maintained Jewish practices while converted to Catholicism.

One of the most famous cases about the Inquisition in Brazil had to do with Antonio José da Silva, a young law student living in Rio de Janeiro. Da Silva had written a number of successful plays and was on his way to becoming a major Brazilian playwriter when he was denounced to the Inquisition as someone who still practiced the Jewish faith. He was arrested and sent to Portugal. Given the opportunity to recant, he refused to do so and was burned on a pyre on October 19, 1739. His courage has always intrigued Brazilians, Jews and non-Jews.  His history has been made into a Brazilian film called O Judeu.  This film has been shown in a number of Jewish film festivals in the US. It carries English subtitles.

Brazil separated from Portugal and became independent in 1822. It became a republic in 1899.

MODERN TIMES - 1850 TO TODAY

The first large numbers of European Jews, primarily German and Alsatian Jews, began arriving in Brazil around 1850. By then the Brazilian population of "conversos" had assimilated and become part of the general Brazilian population.

Brazil was not the favorite destination of European Jews seeking a new life in South America. Europeans, Jews as well as non-Jews, preferred the more cosmopolitan Argentina. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina had one of the highest standards of living in the world.   Its per capita income was higher than that of Italy. Argentina had wheat, oil, and meat, and Buenos Aires was known as the Paris of Latin America.

Argentina had practically no black population of former slaves. Brazil had a large population of them, and overall, it can be said that life in Brazil was substantially rougher than that faced by new arrivals in Argentina. It is probable that many immigrants came to Brazil because the fare was far less than steamship travel to Buenos Aires, 1,500 miles to the south.

Today's Brazilian Jewish population totals about 130,000, although some claim 150,000.

About 70,000 Jews live in São Paulo, which is the commercial and industrial heart of Brazil.  Some 30,000 live in Rio, while the remaining 30,000 are distributed throughout the other towns in the country. Porto Alegre, in the south, is where I was born.  But there are Jews scattered everwhere.  I have a list of non-Jewish cemeteries around the country in which Jews were also buried because there were no Jewish cemeteries in that particular community.

There is a saying in Brazil that if a town doesn't have a Jewish and a Lebanese merchant, it doesn't deserve to be called a town.  Many Jews settled in smaller towns with few Jews. But when their children grew older and of marriageable age, and there were no other Jewish families in town, the families often moved to larger towns with larger Jewish communities.

During the last century, many newly-arrived Jews began their work lives in Brazil as peddlers, unless they had skills, like a "mata-galinha" (shoichet or chicken slaughterer) or an "alfaiate" (tailor), or like my dad, as a teacher of Yiddish. The hardest of the jobs was peddling  bolts of cloth in rural areas, walking from farm to farm carrying the material on one's shoulder. Later, a number of the peddlers  became manufacturers of ready-to-wear clothes. Today, some of the peddlers are highly respected industrialists and even financiers. Their children maybe found in the ranks of professionals, in government, etc.

During the Getulio Vargas early fascist days, in the late '30s and early '40s, no foreign publications were allowed to be printed and distributed in the country.  Although during WWII, when  it became evident that the Allies would win,  Vargas changed sides. Meanwhile, there were no Yiddish ABC books to be had from any source.  My father, who owned a print shop, decided to remediate the situation by publishing a Yiddish ABC book.  But instead of printing the actual date of the publication as 1943, he listed it as 1934, so it would not appear to be printed illegally.  Here's the book in question. If the authorities were to ask questions, the answer would be that Dad's books were "old books."  Fortunately, no one raised questions about this ABC.

Anti-semitism in Brazil is found primarily in southern Brazil where there are large German communities. Anti-semitism in Brazil has never been as virulent as one finds it in Argentina, where it predates the founding of Nazism. There is one German Brazilian Nazi type who runs a book publishing house called Editora Revisão (Revision Publishing House).  It publishes books that deny the Holocaust. The Jewish community of Porto Alegre has sued this man under a Brazilian law that forbids denying historical facts. He lost and had to spend two years in jail.

The Brazilian Justice Department in recent years has confiscated anti-semitic literature, including the book published by Editora Revisão. There are those who see an increased number of anti-semitic acts in Brazil, which in the past has been a land of tolerance,  and are warning that the community should stay alert about them and take action when necessary. There have appeared a number of marginal neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups, as well as skinheads. They are all worth watching.

I ought to mention that during WWII, and thereafter, Latin American countries, including Brazil, weren't eager to accept Jewish refugees. Many Jews turned to the Vatican for help and were issued papers stating that they were Christians. That opened the immigration doors to numbers of them.  Whether they chose to remain "Christians" or returned to Judaism, or whether the whole thing was a sham, isn't clear.  I assume someone has looked into it.

BRAZIL
World Jewish Congress

DEMOGRAPHY

The great majority of Brazilian Jews are Ashkenazim and live in the two largest cities-Sao Paulo (60,000) and Rio de Janeiro (40,000). Smaller communities exist in Bahia, Belem, Manaus, Porto Alegre, Recife, and also in more remote areas.

COMMUNITY

Brazil is a federation; consequently the Jews in each state have an organization of their own. The central body representing all the federations and communities in Brazil is the Confederacao Israelita do Brasil (CONIB), founded in 1951. This umbrella organization includes 200 associations engaged in promoting Zionist activity, Jewish education, culture, and charity. Most Jewish activity takes place in the Hebraica clubs, exclusive social clubs that are privately owned and traditionally headed by leaders of the community. All major international Zionist organizations are represented in Brazil.

The large communities run welfare institutions and hospitals for the needs of their members. The Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, supported by the Sao Paulo community, is considered the best in the country. Brazilian Jews have in general enjoyed comfort, security, and prosperity in a country characterized by the harmonious coexistence of various ethnic groups. Nevertheless, there have been occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism. Brazil has an impressive coalition of intellectuals, clergymen, and statesmen who lead the struggle against racism and anti-Semitism. The success of the Jews, and the liberal and tolerant atmosphere in which they live, has accelerated the pace of assimilation.

CULTURE AND EDUCATION

Jewish education is organized by the National Institute for Education and Culture, and each state has its own committee. Sao Paulo has four Orthodox schools and four traditional ones. There are several Jewish schools in Rio de Janeiro, among them the 500-student Bar-Ilan School, which also has a kosher dining room and a synagogue. The University of Sao Paulo offers Judaic studies. There are several Jewish newspapers and journals published both in Yiddish and in Portuguese, including Resenha Judaica, O Hebreu, Menorah, and Shalom.

The Hashomer Hatzair, B'nai Akiva, and Habonim Dror youth movements are all active in Brazil. The Syrian and Lebanese Jewish communities have their own youth groups. There are sport clubs affiliated with Hebraica in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and these provide sporting and cultural facilities.

RELIGIOUS LIFE

The majority of the Jewish community in Brazil identifies itself as secular Zionist. Until the 1930s, under the influence of the east European immigrants, the main religious stream was Orthodox. With the arrival of Jews from central Europe, the Reform movement was introduced as well. Today most synagogues are Conservative or Reform. In recent years, the Chabad movement has made inroads in Sao Paulo, establishing a synagogue, a mikva, and a kindergarten.

In both large communities, kosher food is readily available, and there are a number of kosher do Brasrestaurants.

JEWISH COMMUNITY

Confederacao Israelita il (CONIB)

Brazilian Jewish Confederation

Rua Joaquim Antunes, 490 CJ 43/45

05415-001 Sao Paulo, SP

Tel: 55-11-306 328 52

Fax: 55-11-306 328 54

email: conib@uol.com.br

website : www.conib.org.br

LINKS    

History of the Jews in Brazil
Brazilian Jewry — A concise history ©Marc Raizman JewishGen
The Crypto-Jews of Brazil, Dr. Ruchama Weiss  ▪  Rabbi Levi Brackman Ynet News
Finding Our Lost Brothers and Sisiters, the Crypto Jews of Brazil by Arthur Benveniste
The Number of Jews in Dutch Brazil 1630-1654)   By Arnold Wiznitzer
History of jews in Brazil, by Ralph G.Bennett
The story of the Brazilian Ambassador who Saved More Than 400 Jews from Nazism, Kerley Tolpolar, The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation
Searching for Brazilian Marranos By Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn with Robert H. Lande February 16, 1997
Brazil, History of the Jews by Ralph G.Bennett
Jews Say Bye-Bye Brazil as Economy and Crime Bite,  Judy Maltz (Haaretz) August 25, 2015 in Forward


SOUTH AMERICA -
 THE JEWS OF  BRAZIL

SUMMARY





























Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese.  It was originally called Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). The name was changed to Brazil to reflect the availability of Pau Brazil, a wood that provided a very profitable dye.

The northern portion of Brazil, called New Holland, with their capital in Recife, was ruled by the Dutch during the Dutch colonization of the Americas between 1581 and 1654. From 1630 onward, it controlled almost half of Brazil's area at the time.  In 1654 it was recaptured by the Portuguese.  While of only transitional importance to the Dutch it laid the seeds of Brazilian nationhood.

The first large numbers of European Jews, primarily German and Alsatian, began arriving in Brazil around 1850. By then the Brazilian population of "conversos" had assimilated and become part of the general Brazilian population.

Brazil was not the favorite destination of European Jews seeking a new life in South America. Europeans, Jews as well as non-Jews, preferred the more cosmopolitan Argentina. At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina had one of the highest standards of living in the world.  Its per capita income was higher than that of Italy. Argentina had wheat, oil, and meat, and Buenos Aires was known as the Paris of Latin America.

Argentina had practically no black population of former slaves. Brazil had a large population of them, and overall, it can be said that life in Brazil was substantially rougher than that faced by new arrivals in Argentina. It is probable that many immigrants came to Brazil because the fare was far less than steamship travel to Buenos Aires, 1,500 miles to the south.

Today's Brazilian Core Jewish population in 2014 is estimated between 95,000 - 107,000.


Kahal Zur Israel (Hebrew: קהל צור ישראל‎, "Rock of Israel"
, Portuguese: Sinagoga Kahal Zur Israel), located in Recife, Brazil, was the first Jewish congregation in the New World. It was established by Spanish/Portuguese Jews that had taken refuge in the Netherlands fleeing forced conversion and were joined by New Christians who were already living in the colony. The original synagogue building survived until the early 20th century, when it was torn down.  The museum on this site designed to resemble synagogues built in the 17th and 18th centuries by Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, opened in 2001.

Today, there are four synagogues in Recife. Many Jews choose to celebrate their weddings and Bnei Mitzvot celebrations in the Kahal Zur Israel because of its symbolism as a connection to their long history in this country. The synagogue is also at the center of a broader cultural renaissance. In November of every year, a Jewish festival offering dance, cinema, and food, from gefilte fish to fluden, attracts around 20,000 visitors.

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Discovery- 1500

Dutch Occupation - 1624-1654

The Portuguese Inquisition
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Modern Times - 1850 to Today

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