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Converts could bolster Brazilian Jewry: activist

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Daneel Schaechter

Of Brazil’s 200 million people, about 120,000 are Jews, or just .06 per cent of the population, but the community could be augmented by thousands if the country’s Jewish establishment didn’t erect so many barriers to conversion.

Getting an Orthodox conversion in the South American nation is difficult, while Reform and Conservative congregations generally don’t welcome people who want to convert. At the same time, there could be as many as 50,000 people ready to do so.

The message Daneel Schaechter will bring to Toronto next week is mixed.

At 25, he’s the youngest board member and Latin American co-ordinator with U.S.-based Kulanu Inc., which supports Jewish communities around the world that are emerging, re-emerging, isolated and often forgotten. Schaechter spent a year in Brazil as a Fulbright Fellow. In addition to teaching English in the coastal city of Recife, he became involved in internal Jewish affairs.

He says that while the status quo in Brazil’s Jewish community isn’t sustainable, there’s hope it can be augmented and strengthened if minds are kept open and prejudices abandoned.

READ: WELCOMING THE CONVERT

Schaechter is scheduled to speak Dec. 11 at Congregation Darchei Noam on “Emerging Jewish Communities in Brazil and Elsewhere in Latin America.” The event is sponsored by the synagogue and Kulanu Canada.

While perhaps not as exotic as the Lemba of Zimbabwe, the B’nei Menashe of India, the Abayudaya of Uganda or Kaifeng Jews – all communities Kulanu serves – Jews and prospective Jews in Brazil face daunting issues.

Schaechter found that Brazil, as in other countries with histories tied to the Spanish Inquisition, has a huge number of b’nei anusim, so-called crypto-Jews who claim Jewish ancestry. In Brazil, some believe the number of potential Jews could be as high as 20 million.

“I would look at that number with extreme caution,” Schaechter said by phone from New York. But he said he’s comfortable saying that as many as 50,000 b’nei anusim, “if a rabbi were to come to them and say, ‘Yes, there is a path for you to convert,’ would do it in a second. And a majority of those have already been studying for five to 10 years, but have never had that path open to them.”

One problem is that with rare exceptions, Orthodox rabbis have prohibited Orthodox conversions within the country, almost always requiring that studies and the conversion itself take place  in Israel or the United States.

“What this means for a majority of the individuals from the emerging communities who are seeking conversion is that they could not even dream about having an Orthodox conversion because of the prohibitive time and costs,” Schaechter wrote recently. As well, the Orthodox conversion process tends to ignore anyone outside Brazil’s three largest cities.

Conservative and Reform rabbis have also generally spurned newcomers, often because they’re poor and from evangelical Christian backgrounds or messianic groups that blend Judaism and Christianity.

Couple all that with intermarriage rates that have hit 70 per cent in Rio de Janeiro, and “it’s a daunting challenge,” Schaechter said.

READ: THE POLITICS OF CONVERSION

More dark clouds can be seen in aliyah rates: more than 12,000 Jews from Brazil have moved to Israel since 1948, and, as the economy and crime worsen, a record 700 are expected to leave this year.

Rising aliyah and intermarriage rates “have turned the mainstream Jewish community even more paranoid and fearful of outsiders,” Schaechter stated.

Over the last year, only about 50 b’nei anusim in Brazil have converted with a Sao Paulo rabbi, Alexandre Leone. “He is under tremendous pressure by the mainstream communities to stop performing these conversions, partially because he generally only meets the potential convert once or twice and doesn’t teach them conversion classes, trusting that they are learned enough, and partially because the community is closed-minded.”

But there is hope. Recently, members of an emerging community began attending cultural events at the Jewish Association of Brasilia, “which is certainly a first step.” And a Sao Paulo-based emerging community was permitted to join the prayer services at a Conservative shul.

But without a path to conversion, Schaechter fears emerging communities will continue to hit roadblocks and will “create a parallel Jewish universe in Brazil, [one that] will not be accepted by the official Jewish communities. Even if 1,000 could convert, the demographics would be affected dramatically,” he said.