Jewish Tours

Buenos Aires, Argentina


by Alden Oreck

Contemporary Brazil



Although they make up a tiny fraction of Brazil's population, Jews continue to be active in several aspects of Brazilian society. According Professor Anita Novinsky, a specialist on the Jews at the University of Sao Paulo, "Brazil was made by the Jews." Their rich culture continues today.


Jewish history in Brazil dates back to the time of the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Gaspar da Gama, a Jew by birth, but later kidnaped and forcibly baptized, accompanied Portuguese admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed in what is now Brazil in 1500, beginning a more than 500-year presence in the New World.

When the Inquisition in Portugal took hold in 1497, Jews fled to places throughout the world, including Brazil. They arrived in Brazil primarily as New Christians or Conversos (Jews converted to Christianity), but many secretly practiced Judaism and began a colonization drive to settle on the land. Despite continued persecution by the Brazilian Inquisition, the New Christians successfully established sugar plantations and mills. By 1624, approximately 50,000 Europeans lived in Brazil, with New Christians making up a significant percentage. They were businessmen, importers, exporters, teachers, writers poets, even priests. In that same year, Dutch forces arrived in Brazil, taking over portions of northeast Brazil. Dutch tolerance allowed for Jewish migration and the open practice of religion. In 1636, Jews built the Kahal Zur synagogue in the Dutch capital of Recife.

In Dutch Brazil, Jews flourished in the sugar industry, tax farming and slave trade. Jews often purchased slaves and resold them at great profit. Those they kept often preferred to work for Jews because both Shabbat and Sunday were rest days, whereas the Portugese only gave them Sunday off, and the Dutch worked their slaves seven days a week.

In 1642, Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, a well-known Amsterdam rabbi and scholar Moses Raphael d'Aguilar came to Brazil as spiritual leaders to assist the congregations of Kahal Zur in Recife and Magen Abraham in Mauricia. By 1645, the Dutch Jewish population peaked at 1,500, approximately half of the European population there. Synagogue records show a well-organized Jewish community with high participation, including a Talmud Torah (school), a Tzedakah fund and an overseeing executive committee.

Other Inquisition-fleeing Jews headed south to Sao Paulo. Little is known what happened to them, some scholars suggest they assimilated quickly, however, recent evidence has revealed Brazilian jungle tribes who light candles on Friday night and refrain from eating pork.

In 1647, the Portuguese authorities arrested Isaac de Castro for teaching Jewish rites and customs in Portuguese controlled Brazil and sent him back to Portugal where the Inquisition sentenced him to death and burned him at the stake. The Portuguese also started a nine-year war that successfully drove the Dutch out of Brazil in 1654.

Portuguese anti-Jewish persecution led to a mass immigration to places like Curacao and New York, where they laid foundations for new Jewish communities, others returned to Europe. Most who could not escape were killed, but some became Crypto Jews, practicing Judaism in secret. They lived away from the authorities, in the interior of Brazil, many becoming ranch hands or cowboys. The persecutions, arrests, confiscation of property and emigration of the Jews greatly damaged the Brazilian economy by bringing the manufacture and export of sugar to a near standstill and seriously disrupting trade between Portugal and Brazil. In 1655, the Portuguese closed a major symbol of Brazilian Jewry, the Kahal Zur synagogue. However, thanks to the Safra banking family, the synagogue re-opened in 2002 and now stands as the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas, housing a Jewish cultural center and hosting some religious ceremonies.


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