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São Paulo, Brazil

São Paulo is the richest and most populated state in the United States of Brazil. São Paulo is the largest and most important city in Brazil with a population of more than 12 million. The Jewish population in the country is approximately 91,500, out of which perhaps as many as 60,000 live in São Paulo. 

The presence of Portuguese New Christians (anusim) began with the colonization of Brazil, then inhabited by many groups of indigenous peoples. The city of São Paulo was founded in 1554 by Jesuit Catholic colonists. In the colonial period (1500–1822), thousands of New Christian Portuguese came to Brazil. During this period, there was a percentage of New Christians among the inhabitants of the southern capitanias (regions under Portuguese governors) and some rose to positions of local influence. Until the proclamation of independence in Brazil, in 1822, Catholicism was the official religion and there was no freedom regarding the practice of other religions.

Two years after Brazil declared its independence from Portugal (1822) it adopted its first constitution. Roman Catholicism remained the state religion, but the constitution proclaimed some tolerance of other religions. When Brazil became a republic (1889), the new constitution (1891) abolished all remnants of religious discrimination and ensured the civil rights of all citizens.

The city of São Paulo began its urban development in the 1860s due to the expansion of coffee plantations and immigration from Europe. Especially after the abolition of slavery (1888), until the 1940s, São Paulo City and the State welcomed a large influx of immigrants from several countries, a total of over 3,000,000 mainly from Italy, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Lebanon, and Syria, who came to work in coffee plantations. São Paulo has since then been an open city that has welcomed immigrants and foreigners, integrating them and assuming traits of each new culture. São Paulo also received Brazilian migrants from all over the country. The cultural and ethnic diversity is present in the history and identity of the city.

Contemporary Jewish presence in São Paulo started in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Jewish immigrants arrived from both Eastern and Central Europe, mainly from the Alsace-Lorraine region. It was not an organized and systematic immigration flow, but one which occurred rather on an individual basis. These first immigrants did not create a Jewish community.

It was only during World War I that a Jewish community began to be organized in the city of São Paulo, initially consisting of immigrants from Eastern Europe (most of them from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania/Bessarabia, and Hungary). Restrictions on immigration to the U.S. and Canada in the 1920s made Brazil a feasible and interesting destination for East European Jewish immigrants. As a new metropolis in the 1920s São Paulo attracted immigrants, offering freedom of religion and community association, economic, industrial, and commercial opportunities, as well as proper conditions for settlement and social betterment. São Paulo's urbanization and economic expansion rates had a decisive impact on the integration and upward social mobility of significant numbers of immigrants. The city's population grew from 240,000 in 1890 to 580,000 in 1920, reaching approximately 2,000,000 in 1954.

By the 1920s, the Jews in São Paulo had already organized a complete network of institutions, such as schools, welfare entities, synagogues, a cemetery, a burial society, credit cooperatives, political movements, press, and social and sports clubs, which molded a dynamic and well-integrated Jewish-Brazilian community supported by organizations such as JCA, HIAS, and HICEM.

The first organizations to be founded were the Kahal Israel Synagogue (1912); Sociedade Beneficente das Damas Israelitas (Froien Farein, 1915); Sociedade Beneficente Amigos dos Pobres Ezra (1916); the Zionist movement Ahavat Zion (1916); the Knesset Israel Synagogue (1916); Gymnasio Hebraico-Brasileiro Renascença – the first Jewish-Brazilian school to teach the official curricula in São Paulo (1922); the Sociedade Cemitério (1923); the burial association Chevra Kadisha (1924); Macabi (1927); Sociedade Cooperativa de Crédito Popular do Bom Retiro (1928); Policlínica Linath Hatzedek (1929); B'nai Brith (1931); and Ginásio Talmud Torá (1932). A small talmud torah, inaugurated in 1916, functioned as a ḥeder, but was only open for a short period of time.

Sephardi immigration from Lebanon, Syria, and cities in Eretz Israel took place in the 1920s. The Sephardim organized the Comunidade Israelita Sefaradi (1924) and founded three synagogues, Comunidade Sefardim de São Paulo (1929, later known as Sinagoga Israelita Brasileira do Rito Português and Sinagoga da Rua da Abolição) and two in the working class neighborhood of Mooca, in São Paulo – Sinagoga Israelita Brasileira (1930), linked to Jews originating from Sidon, and Sinagoga da União Israelita Paulista (1935).

After 1933, a growing number of immigrants arrived in São Paulo from Germany (and later on from Italy). In 1936, they founded the Congregação Israelita Paulista (CIP), Lar das Crianças (Children's Home), and the scouting movement Avanhandava. CIP consisted of 2,000 member families, and became the largest Jewish center in town.

In the hinterland of the State of São Paulo, small communities were formed in several townships, such as São Caetano, Santo André, São José dos Campos, Mogi das Cruzes, Sorocaba, Jundiaí, Campinas, Ribeirão Preto, and Franca, particularly following the railroad trade routes that served the export of coffee, the main State and Brazilian export product up to the 1920s. In Santos, the harbor where immigrants disembarked, an important Jewish community also flourished.

The main neighborhood of the Jewish minority in São Paulo was the district of Bom Retiro, next to the Luz Railroad Station, terminal of the trains coming from Santos, and main route of the export coffee cargoes going to the Santos port. Jewish immigrants used to call Bom Retiro a little shtetl and economic activities were basically trade and clothing manufacturing, initially as clientelchik (peddlers), and later on as merchants, small manufacturers, and industrialists.

In the 1940s, there were Jewish nuclei in several neighborhoods besides Bom Retiro, such as Bras, Cambuci, Lapa, Mooca, and Pinheiros, and each one of them supported a school, a synagogue, and a community center.

In 1915, the Sociedade Beneficente das Damas Israelitas was founded in São Paulo. From then on, women have organized and directed diverse organizations, thus creating a tradition of engagement in Jewish public life. Women were very active in social institutions and also created Lar das Crianças das Damas Israelitas (1939) and Organização Feminina de Assistência Social (Ofidas, 1940). Zionist women’s organizations were founded, such as WIZO (1926) and Naamat Pioneiras (1948). As a matter of fact, many women assumed the direction of community organizations, including Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo in the 1990s.

In 1940, according to official numbers, the number of Jews in the State of São Paulo reached 20,379 and, in 1950, the number was 26,443. In 1941, the Asylo dos Velhos (Old Age Home) was founded, later on called Lar Golda Meir, which currently bears the name Residencial Israelita Albert Einstein – Lar Golda Meir. Between 1936 and 1966, the Sanatório Ezra – Ezra Hospital for Tuberculosis operated in São José dos Campos with 120 beds, also assisting non-Jews.

In 1959, the Centro Israelita de Assistência ao Menor (Ciam) for handicapped children was established. In São Paulo, Jewish female prostitutes (exploited from the late 19th century by the Tzvi Migdal women trafficking network, centered in Buenos Aires), founded the Sociedade Feminina Religiosa e Beneficente Israelita (1924–1968, in São Paulo). There were two specific cemeteries where the prostitutes were buried, in São Paulo and in the town of Cubatão, near Santos. The graves of the São Paulo cemetery, which was located in the Santana neighborhood, are now at the Butantã cemetery, one of the three Jewish cemeteries run by Chevra Kadisha. The Cubatão cemetery is preserved next to the city's municipal cemetery. This chapter in its history carries a strong taboo among the members of the community, although it has been the subject of some literary and history works.

In the 1930s, having settled in a few cities and owing to their economic, social, and cultural public activities, the Jews became one of the “most visible” groups of immigrants, in the words of the historian Jeffrey H. Lesser. Thus, they came to be the object of local, national, and international gambling, “pawns of the powerful,” especially during the Vargas regime in Brazil, when a “Jewish question” was raised in the country.

Under the Getulio Vargas regime (1930–1945), the semifascist Estado-Novo (1937–1945), and during World War II, immigration restrictions (after 1937) and the activities of Ação Integralista Brasileira (a fascist party that existed from 1933 to 1938) generated an environment of nationalism and xenophobia.

Thousands of immigrants from Nazi-dominated Europe were barred, but, nevertheless, Jewish immigration continued individually by a variety of means, mainly through case-by-case negotiations, but never organized through charitable national or international organizations.

Despite the dictatorship and the climate of nationalistic xenophobia, the Jewish organizations adjusted to the nationalist legislation and learned how to confront the restrictions (against all immigrants, not specifically antisemitic), thus allowing them to continue operating. The schools continued to teach Hebrew and Jewish culture, the synagogues maintained their religious services, radio programs played Jewish music, and innumerable organizations were established during this period, resulting in a very fertile period for the organizations and the unity of the Jewish community. The German Jews became most alarmed, especially after Brazil broke relations with Germany and Italy in August 1942, but their organizations went on as usual during the war years.

There are no records of any coercive closure of Jewish organizations in São Paulo, then the biggest Jewish community in the country, during the Estado-Novo regime and especially in the war years. The antisemitism present in governmental and intellectual circles, among diplomats and the elite, did not result in violent actions against the Jews living in São Paulo in particular or Brazil in general, or against those who managed to breach the immigration barriers. In São Paulo the community took part in campaigns in support of the war effort by Brazil, which followed a policy of alignment with the United States and the Allies. This included the sending of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (FEB), with 30,000 soldiers, who fought in Italy in 1944 and 1945. With the restriction on imports and the naval blockade, there was important industrial and technical development in the great urban centers to supply goods which had previously been imported. This created new work opportunities for the inhabitants of the cities, among them the Jewish immigrants who had technical, commercial, and industrial abilities.

In the 1940s, intense debates about Zionism took place in São Paulo, particularly about the unified campaigns that led to the foundation of the Zionist-oriented Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo. Sectors of German Jews, organized within the CIP, did not initially join the Federation. Some very active Zionist youth movements were founded, such as Ha-Shomer ha-Ẓa’ir, Gordonia, Iḥud, Dror, Bnei Akiva, Netzach, Betar, scouting Avanhandava and, in the 1960s, Chazit Hanoar. Although with fewer members and a somewhat weaker ideological stand and Zionist pioneer goal, some of these organizations are still active in the early 21st century.

Leftist Jews were organized from the 1920s, when they ran a small school linked to the Bund. In 1954 the Instituto Cultural Israelita Brasileiro (known as “Casa do Povo”) was founded. Together with the Teatro de Arte Israelita Brasileiro (Taib) and Scholem Aleichem school, these organizations represented the left-wing Jews, many of them involved in the Communist Party. They gave public voice to Yiddish culture and language and managed an active press.

Until the 1950s, more than 13 synagogues and six schools were founded. The schools reflected the Jewish diversity in São Paulo, both regarding religion and politics. Renascença, H.N. Bialik, and I.L. Peretz were Hebraist and Zionists; Scholem Aleichem was Yiddishist and leftist, and Talmud Torá and Beit Chinuch were orthodox. As of the 1950s and 1960s, Yiddish, which had so far been the language of the Jewish minority, was replaced by Hebrew as the main language taught in schools.

In the early 21st century the Jews of São Paulo were politically represented by the Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo, founded in 1946 to coordinate efforts to assist postwar Jewish immigration. After World War II, a few thousand families from the Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and, in the 1950s, Jews from Egypt, Hungary, and Israel, settled in São Paulo, the last significant Jewish immigration to it.

In 1954, the Associação Brasileira A Hebraica was founded. With some 25,000 members, it became one of the most important sports and recreational clubs in São Paulo, and is the largest Jewish organization in Brazil. As of 1964, São Paulo was the seat of the Confederação Israelita do Brasil (Conib), founded in 1948 in Rio de Janeiro as the representative umbrella organization of the Jewish communities. The most accurate demographic and sociological survey of the Jews in São Paulo was carried out by the Federação Israelita de São Paulo in 1970 and published by the sociologist Henrique Rattner. In 1971, the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein opened; it is regarded as one of the best private hospitals in Latin America.

In the 1969 census of the Jewish community, 28,498 people were counted in 9,086 families, with an average of 3.2 persons per family. Since the number of Jewish families is larger than that covered in the census and is about 14,000 families, the number of Jews in the capital, São Paulo, was approximately 45,000 in 1969.

In 1976, the União Brasileiro-Israelita do Bem-Estar Social – Unibes was founded, becoming the largest and most important Jewish welfare organization in São Paulo. Through several health insurance and other programs, it serves hundreds of persons within the Jewish community and the population in general.

In the Early 21st Century

Although it makes up less than 0.01 percent of the total population of the city, the Jewish community has a solid institutional network, a diverse and dynamic Jewish life, and the Jews play an important role in many different fields and activities, including the economy, the culture, the professions, the arts, and intellectual and cultural life, thus forming a minority whose participation and visibility in the city’s daily life very much surpasses its minuscule percentage of population. Their integration in public life is demonstrated by the presence of Jews in the city and state governments as well as in NGO’s, universities and cultural and educational institutions, public services, courts of law, etc. In the 2003 municipal elections, the Jewish community did not vote together to elect a single Jewish city counselor, despite the various Jewish candidates belonging to several political parties.

In a number of cities of the State of São Paulo – Santos, Santo André, São Caetano and Campinas – there are synagogues and Jewish activities. But the Jewish life in the small towns of São Paulo State is declining, without any regular Jewish school.

All in all, there are approximately 100 organizations; 68 of them affiliated with the Federação Israelita do Estado de São Paulo. The Jewish community in São Paulo is organized around a well-structured institutional and community life, with the A Hebraica club, synagogues, and schools as social nuclei. Some events, such as the Festival de Cinema Judaico and the Festival Carmel of Jewish Folkloric Dance, are important cultural activities taking place in the city.

In the city there are four Jewish restaurants and many shops carrying food and religious products in the neighborhoods of Higienópolis and Bom Retiro, the nucleus of the community, although the Jewish population lives in many parts of the city. Since the 1960s, Sephardi Jews have also come to live in the neighborhood of Higienópolis and founded three new Sephardi synagogues. Currently, the Bom Retiro district has become a Korean immigrant commercial center that in many cases replaced Jewish businesses.

In spite of sporadic slogans painted on walls, occasional declarations or articles in small publications, and antisemitic and Nazi sites and some rare anti-Jewish publications, generally linked to anti-Israeli political campaigns, there are no anti-Semitic activities that distress or alter the routine of the Jewish community in São Paulo. Although there is strong concern regarding the security of the institutions of the community, especially following the terrorist attacks in Argentina against the Israeli Embassy (1992) and AMIA (1994), Jewish life in São Paulo is entirely free and public. Governmental authorities as well as the Federação Israelita, and organizations such as the B’nai B’rith, have always kept a vigilant attitude.

In São Paulo there is an active Christian-Jewish dialog involving important authorities of both the Catholic and Protestant churches. CIP’s Rabbi Henry I. Sobel was an active participant in this dialogue as well as in ecumenical religious and political events, where various religious groups also participate and which have domestic and international resonance. He was also very active in the defense of human rights (even under the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1979), thus becoming the most active and renowned Jewish representative both in the city and the nation as a whole.

During the 1990s, due to the sluggish economy, some strata of the Jewish middle class suffered partial impoverishment, which made it necessary to enhance the social assistance services. Unibes, Lar das Crianças ad CIP, Ciam, Ten Yard, Department de Voluntaries do Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, Oficina Abrigada de Trabalho (OAT), Federação Israelita, plus a series of small initiatives, have assisted the Jewish community and concluded a series of agreements with the São Paulo city and state governments to assist the poor population of the city. The Jewish organizations are regarded as a paradigm of management and assistance, and have been awarded several renowned prizes in Brazil.

In 2004, there were in São Paulo 20 regular Jewish schools, including kindergartens, with approximately 4,000 students. However, the number of students in the Jewish schools has been declining.

There are 30 synagogues in the city, including liberal CIP and Comunidade Shalom, which had the first female Brazilian rabbi. The Chabad movement has grown considerably and Bnei Akiva runs a synagogue.

São Paulo is home to significant publishing activity, the largest publisher being Editora Perspectiva, founded by Jaco Guinsburg, the most important Brazilian translator and publisher of Jewish classic texts and Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Also of note are the publishers Sefer and Mayanot. Moreover, there is in the city a Jewish bookstore, Sefer.

The experience of Jewish immigration to São Paulo has been described in the pages of authors such as Samuel Rawet, J. Guinsburg, Eliezer Levin, Alberto Mograbi, and Meir Kucinsky (who wrote in Yiddish, and was published in Israel and translated into Portuguese).

Within the University of São Paulo there is a graduate course on Hebrew Language and Culture as well as a Jewish Study Center, which offers master’s degree and doctoral programs, plus free courses on Jewish and Yiddish cultures. Other universities in the city and the state, such as Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Pontifícia Universidade Católica, and Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, also offer courses on Hebrew and Jewish culture.

The Arquivo Histórico Judaico Brasileiro, founded in 1976, gathers and centralizes documents on Jewish immigration to the city and the nation and functions as an important center for the preservation and dissemination of Jewish memories and history, maintaining the most significant Jewish library in the country, including a Yiddish section.

With no direct link to the Jewish community, the Lasar Segall Museum, sponsored by the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (Iphan), hosts the collection of the artist Lasar Segall, an exponent of Modernism in the arts.

The Jewish communications media include a series of magazines, journals, and bulletins, geared internally to the Jewish community. There are also three TV programs, the oldest and most important being Mosaico, considered the oldest Brazilian TV program in general (not specifically Jewish). Formerly, the Jewish community published a significant number of publications, such as Crônica Israelita, Revista Brasil-Israel, Resenha Judaica, Encontro, the Shalom magazine plus Yiddish publications. The Jewish press is declining and covers at most social activities.

Local organizations include the Organização Sionista Unificada, the Casa de Cultura de Israel, Centro de Cultura Judaica, Associação Janusz Korczak do Brasil, three different Yiddish language clubs, Fundo Comunitário, Keren Kayemet Leisrael, Sherith Hapleitá (Holocaust survivors Association), and Câmara Brasil-Israel de Comércio e Indústria. In 2004 the Consulate General of Israel was closed in São Paulo, although Israel is a central reference point for the self-identity of Jews in São Paulo.

Temple Beth-El was consecrated in 1932 but has been unused since 2007. In 2021, it was converted into the Jewish Museum of São Paulo. The museum has an exhibit on the history of the temple and the Brazilian Jewish community and its institutions. The museum also has explanations on Jewish holidays and lifecycle events, and information regarding conversion, interfaith marriage, the role of sexuality and gender identity in Judaism, and B’nei Anusim. It also devotes space to exhibits on the Hebrew language and the State of Israel.


Documents and publications of Arquivo Histórico Judaico Brasileiro; A.I. Hirschberg. Desafio e Reposta. A História da Congregação Israelita Paulista (1976); E. & F. Wolf. Guia Histórico da Comunidade Judaica de São Paulo (1988); J.H. Lesser, Welcoming the Undesirables: Brazil and the Jewish Question (1995); idem, Pawns of the Powerful: Jewish Immigration to Brazil 1904–1945 (1989); H. Rattner, Tradição e Ruptura (A comunidade judaica em São Paulo) (1977); N. Falbel, Estudos sobre a comunidade judaica no Brasil (1984); R. Cytrynowicz, Unibes 85 anos. Uma história do trabalho assistencial na comunidade judaica em São Paulo (2000); R. Cytrynowicz, Além do Estado e da ideologia: imigração judaica, Estado-Novo e Segunda Guerra Mundial (2002).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Caleb A. Guedes-Reed, “New São Paulo museum looks to educate non-Jews on ‘what it means’ to be a Brazilian Jew,” JTA, (November 3, 2021)