Whenever I mention that I am originally from Brazil, people ask me if I’m from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. When I tell them I’m from Curitiba, a big city in the province of Parana, in the southern part of the country, there is always a second question: “Is there a Jewish community there?”
Indeed, there is. Although Curitiba has a very small Jewish community – somewhere between 800 and 1,000 Jewish families currently live there – it’s a very vibrant one. There are two synagogues, three Jewish cemeteries and it is home to the only Holocaust museum in the country.
Today, Curitiba has an estimated population of 1.9 million. If you count the whole metropolitan area, it’s closer to 3.5 million.
There have been Jews in Brazil since the Portuguese arrived in the country in 1500 (after having been forcibly converted to Christianity, the Jews who fled to Brazil were free to practice Judaism once again). The first synagogue in the Americas was built in 1630 in Recife, in the northeast part of Brazil, during the era of Dutch rule. After Dutch rule ended in 1654, the Jews had to flee the country, or convert to Christianity.
Today, Curitiba (its name is indigenous for “plenty of pine trees”) has a central institution called Kehila, which all Jewish families automatically become members of. The three cemeteries, burial services, school, community centre, social work, the Holocaust museum and one of the two synagogues all fall under the umbrella of Kehila. This centralized approach to Jewish life is very different than what I see in Canada, and in my opinion, it makes the community more united, accessible and efficient.
In the 1920s, when there was a big influx of immigrants, Jewish leaders decided there was a need to start building infrastructure to accommodate the growing needs of the community. The first cemetery was established in 1925. A curiosity about the cemeteries is that people are buried in order, on a first come, first served basis. There is no need to buy a plot close to a loved one, because men and women are buried separately. Once a cemetery fills up, the city donates the land to start a new one. Nowadays, there are two “full” cemeteries and a new one that are currently in use. All the graves are similar in size and shape, with families only allowed to choose the colour of the stone and the engraving.
In 1929, the first community centre was founded and it served as a synagogue, a school and a social club.
In the late 1950s, a large piece of land was acquired and, in 1962, a new club was inaugurated. It is now the site of many Jewish institutions, including the day school and the Holocaust museum.
The Jewish day school serves nursery and elementary students. In it’s heyday – the ’70s and early ’80s – it had close to 300 students, but at the moment, the enrolment stands at 140.
The Holocaust Museum in Curitiba gets around 700 visitors per week, including adults and students from private and public schools. The museum teaches about the Holocaust by sharing the stories of victims and survivors who had some connection to Brazil. It includes many first-hand accounts of survivors who ended up living in the community after the war. It is a small museum, so it’s not overwhelming, but I find it very moving, perhaps because I know most of the people who are showcased. The museum is bilingual (Portuguese and English) and free of charge, but it is necessary to book ahead through its website (museudoholocausto.com.br).
Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement, also has a building on the same property, which hosts weekly meetings, as well as summer and winter camps. It is frequented by kids who are not enrolled in the day school and teenagers who already graduated.
Of Curitiba’s two synagogues, one of them is Chabad and the other is part of the Kehila.
Chabad was started in 1982, after a young couple and their two children moved to Curitiba from New York. They held religious services out of their house and ran day camps during school break (I was part of the Tzivot Hashem army – a group dedicated to teaching mitzvot to children). Today, they have their own synagogue with a large following. The very few Orthodox families in the city go there, but non-orthodox Jews are welcome, as well. The doors are always open and the synagogue offers a whole host of programing for every generation and every occasion. Of special mention is a public menorah lighting during Hanukkah that has been held every year since 1986.
Chabad also manufactures and distributes Hanukkah candles to Jewish households, since they are not available in stores, and is the only source of Kosher food in the city. It sells grocery products, baked goods and prepared items.
The synagogue that is part of the Kehila is called Beit Yaacov. Built in 2011, this bright and modern building has room for 600 people. I was there for Shabbat services, which included lots of singing, followed by a nice Kiddush. The current rabbi follows the Massorti line, which includes lots of singing, but the congregation is Conservative (there’s separate seating and women don’t make aliyah).
I was in Brazil most recently to attend my niece’s bat mitzvah. It was a communal affair, with all the bat mitzvah girls participating in one ceremony. Each girl was also responsible for choosing a woman from the Bible or the community who they saw as a role model, to honour during a presentation at the synagogue. The ceremony was open to the whole community.
Curitiba also hosts several Israeli cultural events. During my stay, I had a chance to attend the Youth Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. And, had I stayed a week longer, I would have been able to attend an Israeli folk dancing presentation.
Despite being a small community, Curitiba maintains a strong connection to Judaism, especially the traditional aspect of it – the love of Israel, the celebration of holidays and the Jewish culture.