Rio de Janeiro is a state in the United States of Brazil; capital of the state and capital of the Republic until 1960 (when the capital was transferred to Brasilia); area of the state: 43.696 km2; population: 14,391,282 (2000); population of the city: 6,094,183 (2005); estimated Jewish population: 30,000 (2020).
New Christians from Portugal immigrated to Rio de Janeiro from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and they played a significant role in the city’s social and economic life. The Inquisition accused and prosecuted more than 300 New Christians in the city’s region for practicing Judaism. With the proclamation of the independent Brazilian empire (1822) and the promulgation of the Constitution (1824), which espoused relative religious tolerance, some individual European Jewish dealers and immigrants began to appear in Rio de Janeiro, which was the capital and one of the most important harbors of the country. One of the prominent individuals among these first newcomers was Denis de Samuel (1782–1860), a young immigrant from England who gained great success and influence and earned the title of baron from the king of Portugal. Another prominent dealer who had business in Rio de Janeiro was Bernard Wallerstein.
The first attempt at communal organization was made in 1840–50 by Jews originating from Morocco who went to Rio de Janeiro from northern Brazil. The organization União Shel Guemilut Ḥassadim, which still exists, ascribes its origin to this attempt. In 1867, a council of the Alliance Israélite Universelle was established in the city. In 1873, Sociedade União Israelita do Brazil, a society for religious and welfare matters was registered; it continued its activities until 1893. Another institution of the imperial period was Sociedade Israelita do Rito Português (Jewish Society of the Portuguese Rite).
At the time of proclamation of the Republic (1889) the number of Jews in Rio de Janeiro was estimated at 200. In 1900, there were two synagogues, one formed by North African immigrants and the other by West European immigrants. In 1900, a new wave of Jewish immigration began, and by the end of World War I the city’s Jewish population was estimated at 2,000.
Between the Wars
A great wave of Jewish immigration to Rio de Janeiro occurred after World War I, and as the Jewish community grew, communal life became more diversified. The Jewish community established a well-organized institutional life and reached successful economic, social, and cultural integration into local culture and society.
In 1910, the Centro Israelita do Rio de Janeiro was founded; its principal objective was the establishment of a synagogue and a cemetery. The latter was founded in 1920 in Vila Rosali. The first philanthropic institution was established under the name Achiezer in 1912; its name was changed later (1920) to Sociedade Beneficente Israelita e Amparo aos Imigrantes (Hilfs-Ferein-Relief). The “Relief” was linked to ICA, HIAS, and Emigdirect, and in 1942 founded a Departamento de Seguro Mútuo Social (Department of Mutual Social Insurance), which in fact was a credit cooperative.
Other social institutions founded were: Sociedade das Damas Israelitas (Jewish Women’s Association–Froein Farein, 1923); Lar da Criança Israelita (Jewish Children’s Home, 1923); Policlínica Israelita (1937, that later became a hospital); and Lar da Velhice (Old Age Home, 1963), created by Sociedade das Damas Israelitas). Jewish women prostitutes founded in Rio de Janeiro the Associação Beneficente Funerária e Religiosa Israelita (Beneficent, Funeral, and Religious Jewish Association) that functioned from 1906 to 1968.
During World War II the Jewish community was active and founded the Comitê Hebreu-Brasileiro para as Vítimas da Guerra (Jewish Brazilian Committee for War Victims) and the Comitê de Socorro aos Israelitas Vítimas de Guerra (Aid Committee for Jewish War Victims). The writer Stefan Zweig immigrated to Brazil in 1936, joined the Jewish community, and wrote a famous book about the country: Brasil, país do futuro. His suicide in 1942 (together with his wife, Lotte), in the countryside city of Petrópolis, was a notable event in the life of the Jewish community and Brazilian history.
The community had its social and cultural center in the Praça Onze, close to the downtown area and the port, where an atmosphere of “Yiddishkeit” was present in daily life until the 1950s, when the Jews moved to other neighborhoods. The writer and Zionist leader Samuel Malamud is the main narrator of the memories from Praça Onze and of Jewish life in Rio de Janeiro. In Praça Onze, also the center of the local Carnaval and a cultural and social meeting point for black people, almost 3,000 Jews frequented the socialist club Cabiras, the parties of the Azul e Branco Club, and other local non-Jewish institutions.
The Zionist movement and the socialist groups were both very active in Rio de Janeiro. The First Zionist Congress in Brazil took place in 1922 with the participation of four different movements, including Tiferet Sion (1919). In 1921, a Brazilian delegate took part in the 12th Zionist Congress in Karlsbad. In 1929, a Brazilian delegate to the 16th Zionist Congress was elected by 1,260 votes. In 1934, the elections drew 2,647 voters. In 1927 the Central Committee of the Po’alei Zion Party was founded and later the Grêmio Hebreu-Brasileiro (Hebrew-Brazilian League).
Many Jewish leftist movements and parties were very active in Rio de Janeiro, among them socialists, communists, and the Bund, in the Biblioteca Israelita Brasileira Scholem Aleichem (Jewish Brazilian Sholem Aleichem Library, 1915), Colégio Israelita Brasileiro Scholem Aleichem (Jewish Brazilian Sholem Aleichem School, 1928), Sociedade Brasileira Pró-Colonização Judaica na União Soviética–Brazkor (Brazilian Society for the Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union, 1928), and Centro Operário Morris Vinchevsky (Morris Vinchevsky Labor Center, 1928). The last two organizations founded a workers’ school (Arbeter Shule) and edited the newspaper Der Onheib. Other leftist organizations were the União Cultural Israelita Brasileira Ikuf, Clube dos Cabiras (1941–50), the Associação Feminina Israelita Brasileira Vita Kempner, and the Associação Kinderland. In 2005, the Associação Scholem Aleichem (ASA) was an active political and cultural center and edited the Boletim da ASA, the sole Jewish leftist publication in Portuguese.
The Yiddish press was very active in Rio de Janeiro with the publication of a few newspapers: Dos Yidishe Vochenblat, Yidishe Presse, and Brazilianer Yidishe Tzaytung. Other important publications in Portuguese were the weekly magazine Aonde Vamos? and O Reflexo. Adolfo Aizen was a Brazilian pioneer of comics.
Jewish Organizations in the Interior
Niterói has had an organized Jewish community since 1916. Its activities include religious services, with a synagogue and a cemetery, and it maintains a local school and organizes cultural and social activities. Petrópolis is a resort city for the residents of Rio de Janeiro. Its community is small, but it nevertheless established a yeshivah to train rabbinical students. In Nilópolis, situated on the route of the central railway of Brazil, a Jewish community was organized in the 1920s with a Centro Israelita (1936), the Sh. An-Ski complementary school, a synagogue, the Macabi club, Wizo, and a Yiddish theater group. In 1947, when Nilópolis became a city, there were 300 families, but later all the members moved to other cities. In Campos, the Sociedade União Israelita de Campos was established in 1929 by 40–50 families.
The Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro is the second largest Jewish community in Brazil, after São Paulo. The community has a solid network of institutions and a very active religious, social, political, and cultural life and is well integrated in the city’s and the state’s social and cultural life.
In 2005, there were 80 entities affiliated with the Federação Israelita do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (Jewish Federation of the State of Rio de Janeiro–FIERJ, founded in 1947), among them 30 synagogues, five schools, four other non-formal educational institutions and youth movements, Zionist women’s organizations, beneficent and social assistance entities, sport and cultural associations. These institutions include: Organização Sionista, B’nai B’rith, Sociedade Beneficente das Damas, Lar da Criança Israelita, Sociedade Beneficente Israelita Hospital Albert Einstein, Hebraica, Monte Sinai, and Clube Israelita Brasileiro. In 1979, a Jewish industrialist, Israel Klabin, became the mayor of the city of Rio de Janeiro. FIERJ has a weekly TV program and is very active in political issues concerning the Jews in Brazil.
According to official numbers of FIERJ, 3,000 students attended the Jewish day schools: Eliezer Steinberg–Max Nordau, Colégio Israelita Brasileiro A. Liessin–Scholem Aleichem, Bar Ilan (Zionist religious), ORT, and the Machané Or Israel and Beit Menachem (both non-Zionist Orthodox).
Rio de Janeiro has a variety of synagogues, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform-Liberal, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, with imposing edifices and tiny shtibels. The Associação Religiosa Israelita (ARI) was founded by German Jewish immigrants in 1942 and follows a Liberal tradition. With a membership of 850 families, ARI supports Lar União–Associação Beneficente Israelita (founded in 1939) and the youth Zionist movement Chazit. ARI is the first synagogue in Brazil to have a woman as a rabbi and is very active in inter-religious dialogue and in cultural events in the city.
Congregação Judaica do Brasil (CJB) is a small Reform synagogue. Under the guidance of Rabbi Nilton Bonder, CJB was the most active Jewish presence at the NGO Global Forum during “Eco-92”, the United Nations ecological conference held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Bonder is the author of many books about Judaism that became bestsellers in Brazil. There are programs for Jewish studies and Hebrew in both the Federal University and the State University of Rio de Janeiro.
In February 2020, a public square in Leblon, Rio’s wealthiest neighborhood, and home to hundreds of Jewish families, was named for the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The city’s first Chabad center was inaugurated in the same area in 1987.
Rio de Janeiro inaugurated a Holocaust memorial that includes a 72-foot-tall tower and overlooks the Sugarloaf Mountain, one of South America’s most famous landmarks. The tower is divided into 10 parts, representing the Ten Commandments. At its base, the sentence “Thou shalt not kill” is written. A large underground space houses a high-tech interactive exhibition area.
A. Dines, Morte no Paraíso. A tragédia de Stefan Zweig (2004); A. Wiznitzer, Os judeus no Brasil colonial (1960); A. Milgram, O ‘milieu’ judeu-comunista do Rio de Janeiro nos anos 30 (2001); B. Kushnir. Baile de Máscaras: Mulheres Judias e Prostituição. As Polacas e suas Associações de Ajuda Mútua (1996); E. and F. Wolff, Campos. Ascensão e declínio de uma coletividade (1986); E. London. Vivência judaica em Nilópolis (1999); S. Malamud, Documentário. Contribuição judaica à memória da comunidade judaica brasileira (1992).
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
Marcus M. Gilban, “Public square in Rio named for late Lubavitcher Rebbe,” JTA, (February 20, 2020);
Marcus M. Gilban, “Rio inaugurates long-awaited Holocaust memorial with 72-foot-tall tower,” JTA, (December 14, 2020).
Photo: Mitchell Bard