Rio Roots: On Being Jewish in Brazil
My grandparents came to Brazil from Europe in the 1920s, and my parents were born in Brazil. My mother's Brazilian roots were in the northern state of Maranhão, which had a very small Jewish community. Although her family was not connected to religion, they kept traditional dinning for major festivals. My mother’s family came to Rio on a ship around 1944, when she was 10 years old. She was repeatedly frightened by the threat of German submarines that at the time fired regularly on Brazilian flag vessels.
My father was born in Bahia, in northeast Brazil, and was from a much more religious family. They moved several times, and so he was living in Recife in 1952 when he and some friends were invited to study and work in Rio, where I grew up.
In the late 1950s, my parents connected with the Associação Religiosa Israelita, or ARI for short. Established in 1942 by a small group of German Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi persecution, today ARI is Rio de Janeiro’s largest Jewish congregation, with a membership of more than 900 families.
My father was immediately impressed by the congregation’s grandeur, especially during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He loved the services' melodies and the messages of humanity and openness conveyed from the bimah (pulpit) by Rabbi Heinrich Lemle (z"l).
Despite its German roots, today's ARI is a melting pot, with a refreshing mix of Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Jews-by-Choice contributing their unique backgrounds. A progressive Reform community, it is one of the most important centers of Jewish life in the city, catering not only to spiritual needs but to cultural and intellectual pursuits, as well.
I enjoy the sense of balance that ARI services promote. Our liturgy is centered on reading Amidah silently, chanting aloud with the congregation, listening to our rabbis' sermons as well as our cantors' beautiful voices, simultaneously strong and soft. Perhaps even more inspirational is the prominent presence of young people at ARI. Every Friday night, approximately 45 kids stand on the bimah for Kiddush.
Our Judaism is wide open, offering everyone a guide to living in the modern world, facilitated by lots of questioning and the beautiful opportunity of finding different answers. This quest is what allows people to deepen their Jewish connections. ARI is a point of pride for the Jewish community in Brazil – and serves as an example for progressive communities across Latin America and the world.
In 2015, for the first time in its history, the World Union for Progressive Judaism's (WUPJ) International Convention will be held in a Latin American country. CONNECTIONS 2015 will take place May 13-16 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at Associação Religiosa Israelita.