Guns, drugs and maybe Islamists: Brazil tightens border before Games


On a chilly morning, with a breeze blowing in from Paraguay, customs officials occasionally stop and search vehicles crossing Brazil's busiest border point, looking for contraband. 

Most passengers are poor Brazilians, carrying electronics they were commissioned to buy duty-free over the river in Paraguay's Ciudad del Este, but there is a more dangerous trade too.

“It's not unusual to find drugs or arms,” said Leonardo, a tall Brazilian customs official with a few day's stubble who has been working the bridge for two years. “You start to get an eye for it,” he said, watching cars crawl across the open border.

With just days to go before the Olympics start in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian security forces have shifted their gaze to an even more amorphous crime: terrorism.

They have increased checks at this border post – where tens of thousands of people cross back and forth every day – and have set up a control room with access to dozens of cameras watching different points of the frontier.

Intelligence officials have long pointed to this border region, home to a sizable Muslim community, as a weak point in Brazilian security. 

With an estimated 500,000 foreigners descending on Rio for the Olympics and recent attacks on European cities raising security concerns, the daunting task of monitoring and controlling the border area between Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina has come back into focus. 

Last month, Brazilian authorities arrested 12 people on suspicion of supporting Islamic State and discussing an attack during the Games. 

It was the first time the government has admitted potential terrorist activity within its borders.

Police say they are monitoring a further 100 people with possible links to Islamic extremism, most of them here in the tri-border area, or TBA as it is known in security circles. 

The point where Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil, Ciudad del Este in Paraguay and Puerto Iguazu in Argentina meet, is a popular tourist spot to access the thundering Iguazu Falls. It is also a major smuggling route. 

In the labyrinth of market stalls lining the feet of high-rise shopping malls, where hookah smoke fuses with the smell of new sneakers and money changers swap wads of currency beside men offering guns for sale, the imagination can run riot.

The reality, however, is hard to pin down. 

The only clear link between the 12 plotters arrested and this area is an alleged attempt by one of the group to buy an AK-47 rifle online from a shop in Ciudad del Este. Given the ease of acquiring weapons in Brazil's major cities, the connection was dismissed by many as a greater sign of the group's amateurism than the dangers of the tri-border area. 

But police sources on the border admit the region is fertile ground for extremist movements.

“There's no doubt the situation suits a would-be terrorist,” one police source told Reuters. “Criminal activity, the flow of people, guns, and a well-established but closed Muslim community are all here.”

'OFFICIALLY, NO TERRORISM'

Concern over the area as a potential fund-raising and access point for militants started after intelligence agencies traced attacks in Buenos Aires on the Israeli embassy in 1992 and the AMIAJewish community center in 1994 back to the region.

Those attacks, which killed 114 people, were blamed on the Lebanese militant political group Hezbollah. 

U.S. intelligence officials drew links to the sizable Lebanese community in the tri-border area and money raised from certain shopping malls in Ciudad del Este.

Diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks from that period showed U.S. frustration. 

“Officially, Brazil does not have terrorism inside its border,” read a message sent in October 2009 from the U.S. embassy in Brasilia. “In reality, several Islamic groups with known or suspected ties to extremist organizations have branches in Brazil and are suspected of carrying out financing activities.”

Another cable, from January 2008, said Brazil “remains highly sensitive” to claims “the TBA is a hotbed of terrorist activity.”

Such sensitivity appears to have been based on a desire not to hurt tourism in the region and a fear of stigmatizing Brazil's Muslim community of about 1 million people, mainly in Sao Paulo, Foz do Iguaçu and the southern city of Curitiba.

The arrests in the run up to the Olympics, all carried out under a new anti-terrorism law passed in March, mark a significant shift in Brazil's approach.

“The law facilitates greatly the sharing of information between police and intelligence services of different countries,” said Marcos Josegrei da Silva, the judge overseeing the investigation.

The prosecutor in the case, Rafael Brum Miron, summed it up even more simply: “If I'd had the same evidence six months ago, I would not have been able to do anything.”

Abdo Nasser Elkhatib, the imam of Foz do Iguaçu's bright white mosque, also stressed cooperation and integration, saying he would alert the police if he suspected a member of his congregation of extremism. 

But at the bridge, or on the river below, it is a different story. Logistical difficulties, corruption and a lack of resources compromise efforts to improve security.

10 MINUTE WALK TO HARDSHIP

Paraguay is a tricky neighbor. South America's second poorest country behind Bolivia, legal and illegal commerce with Brazil is the lifeblood of Ciudad del Este. 

Attempts to increase security by checking more people and cargo would slow the flow of goods and sound a death knell for Paraguay's eastern border zone. 

Despite being a 10 minute walk from Brazil, Ciudad del Este is considered a hardship posting for Brazilian diplomats. Its manic streets can feel lawless despite a heavy police presence. 

On one visit, a fight broke out between motorbike taxi riders, who swarm on yellow bikes across the bridge like bees. One rider ripped off his helmet and smashed it repeatedly over the other's helmeted head. Police and passersby watched with drowsy curiosity. 

“It's very difficult to manage the border,” said Angel Ibarra Mendoza, head of migration on the Paraguayan side, struggling to open his eyes as he walked out of the dark, sleepy migration office. 

He pointed to a new white truck sitting idle in a parking spot. “That's to help us with security for the Olympics.”

Brazilian officers are quick in private to discuss their own flaws. The federal police in Foz have put their own mayor under house arrest on charges of embezzling public funds.

Beyond corruption, there's the problem of resources. 

Out on patrol with the police in a seized smuggling boat, officers point at clandestine ports that line the Parana River. Wearing bullet-resistant vests against the occasional gunfire that comes from Paraguay, they motor past poor communities set along the river's edge where smuggling has been the livelihood for generations. 

“We'd need 10 times the personnel to really be able to police this border,” one officer says.

Brazilian Jews donate 70,000 winter coats for charity


Volunteers in two of Brazil’s largest Jewish communities have collected nearly 70,000 winter coats for the needy during two independent campaigns this month.

In Sao Paulo, some 24,000 coats were collected on Sunday during the sixteenth edition of the annual Jewish-led winter campaign. Some 400 Jewish youths rode trucks loaded with speakers through the streets of Higienopolis, a upscale neighborhood with a large concentration of Jews.

Donors also could drop off coats in collection boxes in a major local square, which organizers called “citizenship drive-thru.” Some thirty Jewish institutions also served as collection sites in the city, which is home to nearly half of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews.

“We are very honored. The concept of building a better world and leaving a legacy is part of our DNA. The Jewish community has this duty toward the larger society,” said Bruno Laskowsky, president of the Sao Paulo Jewish federation.

In Porto Alegre, the capital city of Brazil’s southernmost and coldest state of Rio Grande do Sul, some 45,000 coats were gathered on June 5. On “Iom Mitzvah,” Hebrew for “good deed day,” trucks got packed with clothes and blankets as they rode through central neighborhoods. Donations have beefed up the local government-led winter campaign.

A unusual obstacle was overcome in Porto Alegre after some 5,000 coats were stolen from the storage area at the Hebraica club. Volunteers expanded the calls and new donations were undertaken in Porto Alegre, home to some 12,000 Jews.

Unlike in the vast majority of the country, overnight temperatures can commonly reach between 0-10 degrees Celsius, or 32 to 50 degrees Farenheit, during the winter in both cities.

Chabad ‘welcome centers’ in Rio to offer kosher food, multilingual assistance for Olympics


Chabad will convert its three Rio de Janeiro centers into “welcome centers” for the estimated 40,000 Jewish visitors expected this summer for the Brazil Olympics and Paralympic Games.

The sites in Leblon, Copacabana and Barra will provide kosher food and a prayer minyan, as well as help with other Jewish or general information,  Chabad.org reported. Rabbinical students from New York staffing the centers will welcome guests in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Russian.

“It is a large premises right in the center of Copacabana,” said Rabbi Ilan Stiefelmann, who is coordinating the facility in Rio’s neighborhood packed with hotels, hostels and tourists from around the world. “It’s really the perfect location for us to be able to greet Jewish visitors.”

The Orthodox group will host an official Shabbat program for the Israeli Paralympics delegation, including providing accommodations for athletes and staff who are Sabbath observant.

During the Olympics, an equivalent service will be provided by the Conservative Temple CJB, where some 300 guests are expected, including Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, the highest-ranking Israeli official expected to attend the games.

“We are preparing for about 500 additional people to join our synagogue each Shabbat” during the games, chief envoy Yehoshua Goldman told Chabad.org.

Goldman and another member of his team were appointed by the Brazilian Olympic Committee as two of the three Jewish chaplains at the Olympic village.

Permission for a kosher food concession stand at the Olympic stadium has not yet been granted by the International Olympic Committee. At the village, there will be no kosher or other special food.

Progressive Jews convene in Latin America to debate democracy as a Jewish value


Hundreds of Jewish activists from several countries are meeting in Brazil for the biennial congress of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, one of the world’s largest Jewish organizations.

Rabbis, spiritual leaders, cantors, scholars, teachers, volunteers and other activists from across Latin America, Israel, United States, Canada and England will attend the event’s fifth edition, titled “The Continuity of Democracy as a Jewish Value,” which will take place in Sao Paulo on June 23-25.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who serves as Argentina’s minister of environment and sustainability, is scheduled to attend.

“The WUPJ dedicates significant resources and efforts to maintaining and growing Progressive Judaism across Latin America,” Chairman Carole Sterling told JTA. “Our last event in Rio, Connections, intended to raise awareness of and involvement in the great work taking place across congregations, in communities and by dedicated leaders across the region in general, and in Brazil in particular.”

Lectures, presentations, debates, panels, round-tables and prayers will be held at Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Brazil’s largest synagogue, with 2,000 affiliated families, and at the Hebraica club and other Jewish institutions in South America’s largest city, which is home to half of Brazil’s 120,000 Jews.

The region needs to respond to the scarcity of Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Progressive rabbis able to lead and found congregations, Sterling also told JTA. The WUPJ’s local key goals also include support for Jewish liturgy translations into Portuguese, boost social action to improve the lives of the less fortunate, promote seminars, and grant Torah scrolls to new congregations and bridge communities across the world.

Raul Gottlieb, WUPJ president for Latin America, said he believes the Reform movement has an “irreplaceable role” in Judaism alongside other liberal streams.

“The congress’s theme is the continuity of democracy as a Jewish value, which is particularly important. The prosperity and even the survival of minorities depend on the guarantee that only democratic regimes can provide,” he told JTA. “As Jews, a minority in Latin America, we depend fundamentally on the enhancement of our democracies and we need to engage in this debate and task.”

With an estimated 1.8 million members in 50 countries, the WUPJ is the international umbrella organization for the various branches of Reform, Liberal, Progressive and Reconstructionist Judaism.

Latin America is home to some 500,000 Jews, most concentrated in Argentina and Brazil.

After tour of mega churches in Brazil, head of Jewish-Christian group promises 850 new olim from cou


U.S.-born Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein completed a two-week tour of Brazil’s mega churches to raise money to bring local Jews to Israel — drawing the ire of Israel’s official aliyah body.

On Monday, a day ahead of his departure from Brazil, Eckstein told JTA that his Jewish-Christian group will help hundreds of Brazilian Jews make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel, this year. His tour was also designed to drum up support for Israel among Brazilian evangelicals.

“Next week, the first group of Jews from Brazil will make aliyah with us and we expect to bring a total of about 850 Brazilian olim [immigrants] to Israel by the end of 2016,” Eckstein wrote in an email, claiming his group brought some 4,000 Jews from around the world to Israel last year.

Yigal Palmor, the Jewish Agency’s director of public affairs and communications, rejected Eckstein’s figures and slammed his group, the Jerusalem-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. Palmor said the Jewish Agency is the only organization empowered by the Israeli government to handle aliyah.

“Their parasitic action consists of pretending to be mandated by the government of Israel or to substitute themselves to The Jewish Agency, and then to lure gullible olim to board their flights by offering them cash money,” he told JTA by phone.

“In other words, they ‘bribe’ innocent olim, who had their aliyah visa prepared by the Jewish Agency, to concentrate on the IFCJ flights and thus to take part in a PR spectacle.”

The organization denied Palmor’s accusations. “Mr. Palmor’s remarks are complete lies, and nothing less than libelous,” IFCJ said in a statement to JTA. “He has apparently not learned the lesson from his previous embarrassment with regard to Brazil, which forced an official apology from the President of Israel to the Government of Brazil.”

In 2014, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin apologized to the administration of then Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff after Palmor called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf” after Brazil recalled its envoy over the Gaza conflict.

Eckstein has sparred in the past with Jewish Agency officials over what he said was a lack of recognition of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, of which he is founder and chairman. The group is also known by its Hebrew name, Keren Leyedidut.

The Israeli government pays for new immigrants to fly to Israel and gives them money to be used toward rent and other startup costs.

In Brazil, Eckstein addressed churches with up to 5,000 members, part of Brazil’s rising evangelical population of nearly 50 million people — the second largest in the world behind the United States.

Last year, Eckstein met Brazil’s current president and then-vice president, Michel Temer. The official praised the visit, saying “Brazil is a global reference of harmony among religions.” Jewish officials also attended that meeting.

“Brazil’s Christian community feels biblically connected to Israel and is hungry to learn about the Jewish roots of their faith,” Eckstein said. “They want to go to Israel and visit the Biblical sites they have read about.”

He sees Brazil’s Christian community as natural allies for Israel, “a potential new front for Christian Zionism, a bulwark against intensifying anti-Semitism and Israel’s growing political isolation.”

A Brazilian-born Israeli envoy for the fellowship last week met with tens of potential olim in both Sao Paulo and Rio, and told them about financial packages they could be awarded by the group when making aliyah.

Aliyah from Brazil has risen sharply in recent years: 2015 saw the arrival of some 500 immigrants, a 70 percent increase over 2014 and more than double the 210 who came in 2013. For 2016, over 1,000 Brazilians have already initiated the aliyah process, the Jewish Press reported.

Two Brazilian senators associate Holocaust with country’s political crisis


Two leftist Brazilian senators compared Nazi Germany and the Holocaust to Brazil’s political environment in light of President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension as part of an ongoing impeachment process.

“In times of crisis, the Jewish people are historically designated as ‘guilty’ for the evil that does not concern it. And history is repeated,” Israel’s honorary consul in Rio, Osias Wurman, told JTA on Thursday.

The Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, condemned the comparison in a statement.

Sen. Roberto Requiao proposed last week that Brazil follow Nazi Germany’s example to handle the economy. He used the Adolf Hitler archetype to defend Rousseff’s illegal maneuvers to mask a perilous budget deficit, which led last Friday to her suspension for 180 days and the naming of her centrist vice president, Michel Temer, to replace her.

On May 16, far-left Sen. Lindbergh Farias suggested on his Facebook page that Temer inspired his debut speech last week in Parliament in which he mocked the “Arbeit macht frei” (Work will set you free) sign over the entrance gate at Auschwitz.

Farias, who has nearly 365,000 followers and is among those who call the suspension process of Rousseff a coup d’etat, published Monday an Auschwitz gate photo above a street billboard in the city of Campo Grande with the slogan “Don’t think about crisis. Work.”

“Auschwitz was the biggest extermination machine in the history of humankind. The cynical inscription at its entrance sums up one of the lowest points that a political regime can get, when it’s guided by prejudice and intolerance,” the Brazilian Israelite Confederation said.

“Such a context does not resemble at all the current Brazilian scenario. The attempt to compare the Holocaust to our political matters does not only minimize and vulgarize the immeasurable evil perpetrated by the Nazis but also deeply disrespects the memory of the victims and the survivors of this tragedy.”

Last month, Rousseff, compared attempts to impeach her over corruption scandals to the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Israeli-born economist confirmed head of Brazil’s Central Bank


Ilan Goldfajn, an Israeli-born economist with an acknowledged career in both the public and private sectors, was confirmed Tuesday as president of Brazil’s Central Bank.

Goldfajn, 50, a Haifa native who was raised in Rio de Janeiro, has served as chief economist at Itau, Brazil’s largest private bank, and deputy to the bank governor of Brazil, as well as adviser to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Last year, Goldfajn argued during an Israel-Brazil chamber event in Tel Aviv that the deep economic crisis affecting Brazil stems from a lack of fiscal responsibility. In response, he said, Brazil must boost exports and raise taxes, cut government spending and raise the retirement age.

An outspoken critic of the corruption and socioeconomic gaps in Brazil, Goldfajn will face a series of monetary and economic challenges. Latin America’s largest nation is struggling with its worst recession in nearly a century, including the prolonged erosion of the Brazilian currency, the real, steadily rising inflation and the pessimistic projections of a negative 3 percent growth in 2016.

Last week, Michel Temer was named Brazil’s interim president replacing the suspended Dilma Rousseff, who is facing impeachment over her alleged manipulation of the state budget. At the time, Temer had put forward Goldfajn’s name as the mostly like to head the central bank, but Finance Minister Henrique Meirelles delayed the announcement of his economic team until Tuesday.

Fluent in Hebrew, English, Portuguese and Spanish, Goldfajn has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. In the mid-1990s he was a professor at Brandeis University, followed by a stint as an economist at the International Monetary Fund.

He said he dedicated his career to his father’s advice on the importance of studying.

“I only stopped my formal studies at almost 30,” Goldfajn told Educate to Grow magazine in 2012. “This was key to my life in economics, which is also based on studies. Right after I graduated, I thought of working and my father showed me I could invest in me more.”

Brazil’s Jews are scaling back on their kids’ birthday extravaganzas


Mini roller-coasters, Ferris wheels, monorails and zip lines are just some of the over-the-top attractions featured at birthday parties for Rio’s privileged under-10 set.

At “casas de festa” (party houses), parents often pay several thousand dollars for lavish themed decorations and amusement-park style attractions for four-hour long, deejayed parties for 100-plus friends of the birthday boy or girl — often as young as 3 – escorted by their parents and siblings.

“It’s a millionaire market,” said businessman Fernando Fajngold, 46, one of the pioneers of the $100 million party industry. “Parties are spectacles where parents ask for foreign [cartoon] characters, magicians, mimics, caricaturists, Japanese food and whatever else you can imagine. Some of these super productions may cost nearly the price of a popular car.”

But in a sign of Brazil’s flagging economy, and a growing sense of modesty among many families, some Brazilian Jewish families are beginning to cut back on the birthday extravaganzas.

Latin America’s largest nation and the home of some 120,000 Jews is facing what is considered the most severe economic crisis in a century.

In 2015, a record 500 Brazilian Jews moved to Israel seeking a better life for their families, including quality public health care, education and job opportunities. For many emigres, moving to Israel is also seen as an escape from snobbery and one-upmanship.

Michelle Diamante Wajntraub, a native of Porto Alegre who lives in Rio, believes the economic crisis is changing attitudes among her contemporaries. She remembers inviting 150 guests to one of her daughters’ parties, but now she prefers small get-togethers.

“It’s too much money for a four-hour party and the child won’t even care if the mother did it or hired someone. All they want is to play with friends and sing ‘Happy Birthday,'” she said. “When kids are little, their big parties mostly end up being for the parents. Also, I like to get involved and the kids have lots of fun with the preps.”

Charlotte Fridman celebrated her birthday at a modest party at her family's home near the Copacabana neighborhood. (Courtesy of Aline Fridman)Charlotte Fridman celebrated her birthday at a modest party at her family’s home near the Copacabana neighborhood.  Photo courtesy of Aline Fridman

Psychologist Aline Fridman said her children Kurt and Charlotte, ages 7 and 5, prefer parties held at their spacious apartment near Copacabana, the Rio neighborhood where most middle-class Jews live.

“Music, theater, books and toys, that’s how we do our parties at home,” Fridman told JTA. ”Kids choose what to play with. Last time I bought a pie, candies and food and that’s it. My mom and aunts helped me. It’s cozier and we save money to travel and for cultural activities. We know many couples who are used to doing the same.”

Deborah Khodari, the co-founder of Zukie, a fancy children’s clothing store popular among Jewish moms in Rio, has noticed signs of change among mothers who buy presents for their children’s friends.

“Kids attend an average of four to six parties every month. Sometimes it seems they need to clone themselves between three parties on one same weekend,” said Khodari, a mother of two. “Our shoppers used to pay $30 for a present, but now the average is nearly half of that.” 

To be sure, Brazilian Jews continue to host extravagant parties, just as many North American Jews throw lavish bar and bat mitzvah galas despite calls from rabbis and others to scale back for the sake of modesty and “spirituality.”

The children’s party market in Brazil grows 30 percent every year, according to SEBRAE, the Brazilian government’s small business bureau. Considering a target population of 52 million children under 14 in the country, the business is hardly child’s play.

Many of the air-conditioned entertainment shrines where such parties are held are located in Botafogo, where Brazil’s largest Jewish day school, Colégio A. Liessin, is also located. When observant families throw a party, they provide a small table with kosher food — if not a full kosher buffet. When meat is served there are even non-dairy versions of brigadeiros, the sugary Brazilian bonbons that are de rigueur as part of elaborate birthday displays.

Fajngold opened the Unidunite party house in 1996 in upscale Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s newest neighborhood. The demand was so impressive that he opened a second venue, where during the 2000s he hosted some 30 parties every month. Competition quickly became fierce, leading him to close the branch. Today he runs a film and photo production company to serve the industry.

Mariana Zagury’s twins Daniela and Gabriel attend kindergarten at Liessin. Some 200 guests attended their third birthday at one of Rio’s ritziest party houses, Existe Um Lugar. Typical for such events, families brought nannies dressed in impeccable white uniforms to look after their kids.

And yet even here the couple tried to make the day more meaningful. Zagury and her husband, Eduardo, who serves as cantor for Jewish weddings, chose the venue for its innovative educational approach, healthier food, open-air environment and the greenery surrounding the playground.

“Everyone, including Jewish couples, have been seeking more meaningful parties,” Zagury told JTA. “I have the best memories from my childhood when my mother made most things alone without professional aid. I guess it’s a trend once again.”

Lavish theme parties, even for toddlers, are the norm at Brazilian Lavish theme parties, even for toddlers, are the norm at Brazilian “party houses” like Unidunite in Rio’s upscale Barra da Tijuca neighborhood. Photo from Facebook

Although some prefer discretion, most Jewish parents brag about their super parties. Sending pictures to a Jewish newspaper’s social column has been replaced by sharing an album on Facebook. Gustavo Serebrenik is among the more sought-after photographers. Nearly half of his clientele is Jewish.

“Spontaneous photos, when performed with the appropriate technique and good light, have the power to make parents truly delighted,” he told JTA. “Those are moments that they didn’t notice during the party and they are caught by surprise to see in pictures.”

In Israel, some Brazilian immigrants look back on the big parties with a mixture of nostalgia and rue.

When Rio-born kindergarten teacher Karen Holperin, who now lives near Tel Aviv, threw the first birthday party for her Israeli-born child Yoni last year, she invited only 30 children and adults. Guests were asked to bring a savory or sweet dish to the park, and she baked the cake.

“I fell in love with the simplicity and intimacy. No waiters, no cleaning ladies, no cooks, no professional decoration,” Holperin told JTA. “We do it on our own. We prepare quiches, salads and sandwiches, or order coxinha [chicken fritters]. Mothers prepare the recreation. I follow my Brazilian Jewish friends’ parties on Facebook and today I find those super productions very awkward.”

Sao Paulo native Luciana Almeida Tub, who lives in Netanya, recently threw a joint party for her kids Uri and Lia. She and her Uruguayan husband welcomed friends of various backgrounds to a party at a Netanya park. Tub directed the show herself.

“What has always impressed me in celebrations here is simplicity in all possible ways,” Tub told JTA. “No loads of money, no one dying to set up a breathtaking decoration, no one dedicating an entire night to prepare candies.”

Marcela Goft’s daughter Hannah was born in Israel after her mother made aliyah in 2008. However, the family traveled to Rio to celebrate her first birthday – at a party house.

“We did it the Brazilian way. Israelis believe parties like ours are unnecessary and – why not – ‘chaval al hazman,’ a waste of time,” Goft told JTA in an email from her home in Efrat, in the West Bank. “Something I like in the Israeli culture: Whereas in Brazil birthday kids receive tens of very expensive presents, here ordinary sticker books or coloring books is enough.”

For Fridman, replacing opulent parties for the do-it-yourself style is a smart and very Jewish trend.

“Due to the historic persecutions, we Jews know we don’t take with us anything but our knowledge, memories, talents, traditions,” she said. “What we save today can be enjoyed by our family tomorrow.”

Man impersonating Jewish man accused of burglaries in Jewish Brazilian district


A 20-year-old man wearing a kippah, faking a foreign accent and pretending to be Jewish is accused of several burglaries in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Arrested in February after breaking into an apartment and stealing $100, Francisco Danilo Cordeiro Rocha is accused of perpetrating at least another four burglaries in the Higienopolis neighborhood. He took some $150,000 in jewels and other items, according to victims. He was released after paying $235 in bail, according to the G1 news portal.

Rocha reportedly impersonated a Jewish person in order to gain access to buildings. He often claims to be visiting a rabbi or delivering a document from a nearby synagogue. During the first night of Passover, he was taped by local security cameras deceiving doormen.

“He is smart, doesn’t get intimidated and talks like rabbis with an American-ish accent,” said an Orthodox Jewish lawyer and resident who preferred to remain anonymous, according to the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. “That’s how he managed to deceive doormen who are less careful.

“The Jewish community is really frightened, concerned and very sad, mainly because the police have been lenient.”

A Jewish resident, Elaine Markovits, posted pictures of the burglar on social media and alerted doormen and superintendents in several buildings in the neighborhood of Rocha, according to O Estado de S. Paulo.

“It’s not uncommon to see people commit crimes disguised in uniforms in Sao Paulo, but this guy who dressed as Jew was an isolated case and the Jewish community does not need to worry,” Octavio Aronis, security director of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, told JTA this week. “To me it’s not a matter to be handled by our community security but rather by the police.”

Sao Paulo is home to some 60,000 Jews, half of Brazil’s Jewish community.

Dutch Noah’s Ark replica sailing to Brazil for Olympic Games


A Dutch Christian organization is planning to sail a “replica” of Noah’s Ark to reach Brazil during the Summer Olympics and the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Longer than an official soccer field, the vessel was built following the biblical measurements given in Genesis 6:15, the director of the Ark of Noah Foundation, Herald A.M.A. Janssen, told ABC News.

The voyage, which is still in its planning stages, intends to stop at multiple port cities in Brazil as well as Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia, before coming to the United States.

The Olympics start in August and the Paralympics the following month.

The ark, which spans five floors and can hold more than 5,000 people, weighs roughly 2,500 tons and is 95 feet wide, 410 feet long and 75 feet tall. Carpenter Johan Huibers said he began building it after dreaming about an intense storm that flooded his hometown in the Netherlands.

“And this is how you shall make it: The length of the ark shall be three hundred 8 cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits,” the Bible passage reads.

By reviewing multiple historical measurement units in the various ancient cultures, Huibers created a measurement scale to use while building his ark. Since its completion in 2012, hundreds of thousands have visited the ark, which became a multi-floor interactive exhibit focused on the spreading of religious teachings from the Bible for Christian educational purposes.

Tourists who visit the ark encounter Bible-based stories and exhibitions, attractions, a movie theater and more.

“We are so pleased with the very warm support of the private community in Fortaleza, our first stop in Brazil after crossing the Atlantic Ocean,” Janssen said. “The target is to reach Fortaleza in July, and reach the Paralympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro by Sept. 7.”

Artist finds peace, family in Brazil through philanthropic photography of Yanomami indians


Anyone traveling to Brazil — perhaps for this summer’s Olympic soccer competition — should make a point to stop at the Inhotim contemporary art center in Brumadinho, which at 5,000 acres is considered the largest art park in the world. 

There, among works by contemporary artists from around the globe, the center’s newest pavilion focuses on the work of Claudia Andujar, a woman whose kinship with the Yanomami peoples of northern Brazil was precipitated by her own personal loss in the Holocaust.

“I have absolutely no family,” Andujar said. “My family are the Yanomami. I feel at home with them.”

Claudia Andujar in the Andujar pavilion. Photo by Rossana Magri

Born in Switzerland in 1931 to a Hungarian-Jewish father and Swiss-born mother, Andujar has lived and worked in Brazil since 1954. As the humanist photographer describes it: “I spent the first 13 years of my life between [what was at various times part of] Romania and Hungary, in Nagyvarad, Transylvania. In 1944, all my father’s family were taken to Dachau concentration camp where they died … all of them. 

“My mother and I escaped, avoiding the camps. I was very shaken by what was happening. It is something that stayed with me until today. I think my pursuing and working with the Amazon’s indigenous Yanomami Indian group, to defend them and give them the opportunity to survive is … a way of dealing with my youth.”

The artist is a co-founder of Comissão Pró-Yanomami (CCPY), a Brazilian organization dedicated to preserving Yanomami culture and territorial rights. She has worked to help the Yanomami survive decimation from disease brought by the outside world, such as polio and measles, and has fought the destruction of their lands brought about by gold mining and deforestation. 

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, Andujar spent long periods of time among the Yanomami on their lands, mostly in the basin of the Catrimani River, a tributary of the Branco River near the northern Brazilian border.

“There are about 20,000 Yanomami. … I only know part of them,” she said. “I have known them for 30 to 40 years. They call me ‘Mother.’ That’s wonderful!”

Andujar explained that the Yanomami were very sensitive to outside exposure. 

“They were getting all kinds of diseases, and many died because of this. We decided to have a health project, and I accompanied two doctors to vaccinate them and do whatever was necessary for them to survive. 

“The Yanomami knew that many had died, and that we were trying to help them. In their culture there is no such thing as doctors or vaccinations. Many knew me, so they accepted my help.”

Inhotim is located outside of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third-largest city (and home to one of the seven venues in six Brazilian host cities for the 2016 Olympic soccer competition). Art is displayed in various pavilions and galleries, as well as outdoors among botanical gardens, forest landscapes, trails and more. 

At present, there are 19 permanent pavilions at the Inhotim center and more than 20 stand-alone pieces, four galleries with rotating exhibits, with more pavilions contracted for the future. Internationally known contemporary artists, from Yayoi Kusama and Chris Burden to Brazilian superstar Tunga, get to choose a location from among the park’s hills, fields, meadows or forest, then team up with a noted architect to design a site-specific structure, space or pavilion.

The Claudia Andujar pavilion at the Inhotim contemporary art center in Brazil

The newest and second-largest pavilion, opened in November 2015, is devoted to the works of Andujar. The opening show in the Andujar pavilion, the result of a five-year collaborative effort between the artist and the Inhotim center, consists of more than 400 photographs Andujar produced between 1970 and 2010. Among these are works from her Marcados series, some of which were published in her 2009 book, “Marcados.” 

“The Marcados are the Yanomami who … are all numbered. When we started working with the Yanomami, they had to be identified to be able to do the health project because the Yanomami culture does not have names. They call each other mother, father, brother … by their family connection. I photographed every Yanomami who was examined by the doctor and given a vaccination.”  

The photos have a raw quality, as if the viewer is invading the private lives and thoughts of the Yanomami. These are a people who are totally unfamiliar with cameras and photographs, and just as unfamiliar with outsiders. One can almost see the Yanomami’s apprehension, their wondering, “Why are you looking at me?”  

In some cases, the viewer can see joy, delight, even. Others are quietly watching, waiting to see what will happen next, and still others seem to have a complete discomfort with the situation. 

Andujar said that her pavilion “is organized into four sections according to ‘Amazonian nature’: portraits; the way the Yanomami live and their culture; Shaminism; and the Yanomami’s history since I began working with them. … This is the first time I have between 400-500 photos [displayed] in one place.” 

Andujar, who has contributed to many publications, documentary projects and exhibitions on the Amazon and its indigenous peoples, has been featured in solo and group exhibitions across the globe. Her photographs have been published in Life, Fortune and other magazines, and are in the collections of places such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The most expedient way to get to Inhotim from the United States is through Sao Paolo. Nonstop flights from Sao Paolo to Belo Horizonte take about one hour; shuttle or bus service from Belo Horizonte to Inhotim takes another hour or so. 

Visitors should note that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Level 2 travel advisory for Brazil to caution travelers about the Zika virus, which is transmitted through mosquito bites.

Battling Zika, Brazil’s Jews turn to bug repellent and indoor activities


Despite recent summer temperatures here topping out at 42 degrees Celsius (109 Fahrenheit), Milena Rozenbrah has become accustomed recently to dressing in pants and long sleeves when she leaves home.

A Jewish mother in Brazil’s second-largest city, Rozenbrah is concerned not for the religious value of tzniut, or modesty, but for Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits the feared Zika virus and which has become one of Brazil’s national enemies.

Brazilians have been in a state of panic over Zika, which is believed to cause birth defects and other medical problems, and Brazil’s 120,000-member Jewish community is hardly immune. Rozenbrah persuaded other mothers at her son’s Jewish day school to buy a gallon of the best mosquito repellent on the market and have the teacher apply a generous layer twice a day.

“We have crossed out of our family routine going to the Botanical Gardens and all green areas,” Rozenbrah told JTA. “We have anti-mosquito scented vaporizers all over our house and we avoid going out early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the most dangerous periods with more mosquitoes. Also, we keep the air conditioners on almost 24/7, which has made our electricity bill skyrocket.”

Brazil is ground zero for the growing Zika crisis. Last month, the World Health Organization declared Zika a global health threat out of concern that it is likely responsible for a spike in Brazilian cases of microcephaly, a condition in which babies are born with small heads and permanent brain damage. The risks to children and adults are less clear, but symptoms can include fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain and headaches. There is no vaccine or specific treatment, according to Brazil’s Ministry of Health.

At Brazil’s largest Jewish school, the Liessin school, students are participating in the Zika Zero campaign. (Marcus Moraes)At Brazil’s largest Jewish school, Liessin, students are participating in the Zika Zero campaign. Photo by Marcus Moraes/JTA

Though the worst-hit areas of Brazil are in the country’s Northeast, Rio, home to approximately one-third of Brazil’s Jews, has also felt the effects. The city is the site of the enormous Tijuca Forest and other natural landscapes that provide vast habitats for the aegypti mosquitoes. During the Carnival holidays last month, some Jewish families gave up their traditional excursions to the mountain refuge of Teresopolis, where the Zika threat is thought to be greater, preferring to stay in Rio, which has better medical resources.

At Rozenbrah’s son’s school, Liessin, the largest Jewish day school in Brazil with some 1,500 students, there have been no reported absences due to Zika, dengue or chikungunya, the other viruses associated with the Aedes mosquito. Pedagogic coordinator Maria do Carmo Iff believes prevention has been key.

“Our strategies include campaigns, training, latest news on bulletin boards, leaflets produced by the students, chat circles, drama, games, videos and much more,” Iff told JTA. “The whole school community must be involved, but mainly the children and teenagers, who are the best multipliers of our Zika Zero campaign. We also ask parents to keep in touch with us about any symptom that may appear.”

Erica Saubermann Alem, a mother of two who lives across the street from Liessin, is skeptical about the prevention approach. Ten years after she had dengue fever, another mosquito-borne illness that can cause Zika-like symptoms, she came down with Zika last month and wound up in the emergency room with rashes on her skin, severe headache and acute joint pain.

“In my opinion, repellents are a waste of time,” Alem said. “They are poisonous, kids don’t like it and their effect doesn’t last long. And protection is not 100 percent.”

Another Liessin mother, Juliana Eidelman, is eight months pregnant. Despite the prevention campaign, she says she has never been so frightened – even more so than when she was expecting her first child in the midst of the global swine flu epidemic in 2010.

“If I could have known in advance, I would have put off my current pregnancy,” Eidelman said. “Microcephaly is a very real risk. Now that my baby is formed, I am a bit calmer. But I still apply repellent along with makeup several times a day.”

Milena Rozenbrah and her family. (Courtesy of Rozenbrah family)Milena Rozenbrah and her family. Photo courtesy of the Rozenbrah family

The link between microcephaly and Zika is a matter of some dispute, and doctors have been offering conflicting advice. One of the most prominent obstetricians in the Rio Jewish community, Janine Cynamon, who is also an infertility specialist, has been advising her older patients not to wait to get pregnant. But for younger patients, she recommends delaying pregnancy or freezing embryos until a vaccine for Zika is available.

“Our religion does not forbid contraception,” Cynamon said. “Therefore, I have been advising young hopeful mothers not to get pregnant before April [when the risk of mosquito transmission is highest].”

Cynamon sees patients at her office in Copacabana, one of this city’s main Jewish neighborhoods and home to several synagogues and Jewish institutions. In neighboring Ipanema, Dr. Betty Moszkowicz, a pediatrician, is less convinced that Zika poses a risk to the unborn.

“I don’t recommend postponing pregnancy,” Moszkowicz said. “The association between Zika and microcephaly is still very controversial and I am personally not convinced.”

The Health Ministry has yet to establish a firm link between Zika and birth defects, though several recent studies have found evidence of a connection. The ministry does recommend pregnant women use insect repellent, and the World Health Organization says avoiding mosquito bites is the best prevention.

Indeed, the need to control Zika has even led one Rio rabbi to assert that the need to prevent the disease’s spread overrides religious prohibitions against killing bugs on the Sabbath.

“Mothers must take all measures against Zika, such as applying repellent,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Goldman, the chief Chabad envoy in Rio. “The mosquito can be killed even on Shabbat, for it threatens life.”

Brazil Hillel feigns closure in bizarre marketing stunt


Hillel Rio announced it would not close down just three hours after lamenting that it would, all via its Facebook page.

Before posting the second “official note,” the campus organization’s branch in Rio de Janeiro drew hundreds of supportive messages hailing the work led by its volunteers. Afterward, the group was slammed for what some saw as manipulative marketing tactics.

Hillel Rio’s executive director Rony Rechtman confirmed to JTA that the posts were planned as a promotion, and defended the move.

“We intended to draw attention about Hillel’s importance. Our community needs to talk more, interact more, we need one another,” he said. “The change in Hillel must come from outside, we can’t make it all on our own.”

Rechtman assumed his position at Hillel in January. The posts were his first major public action.

“We did cheshbon nefesh,” he explained. Taking a “cheshbon nefesh” — Hebrew for “accounting of the soul” — is a religious practice whereby the “credits” and “debits” of one’s spiritual life are examined and balanced.

“We are much more surprised than we expected with the reaction to the news about the closure. We now see that our work is worthwhile and touches people. We apologize to those who felt deceived,” read the second announcement. “Hillel Rio is now ready for new stuff that will the face of our Rio Jewish community.”

Opened in 2004, Hillel is the leading organization for Jewish students in Rio. Some 1,500 Brazilians have taken Birthright trips to Israel through the group.

Rio is home to about 40,000 Jews, one-third of the total number in Brazil.

Jewish hotspots during Brazil’s blockbuster Carnival season


Brazilians know how to party. Nowhere is that more obvious than at Carnival, Brazil’s most popular celebration festively combining its rich and multi-ethnic melting pot. It’s also one of the world’s largest multi-day celebrations, when ecstatic crowds enjoy fabulous samba parades and enormous street parties.

Carnival follows a lunar calendar, so the exact date varies — this year it’s Feb. 5-10. The celebration kicks off Friday night and ends on Ash Wednesday at noon, when some very hungover Brazilians are forced to go back to work. Easter Sunday comes 40 days after.

Though it may have Catholic connotations, the roots of Carnival trace back to pagan rites of spring held by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Across Europe, the season was celebrated with parties, masks and dancing in the streets. The Portuguese brought the Carnival concept to Rio in the late 1800s, when French-style balls and masquerade parties became common. Over time, unique elements deriving from African, Ameri-Indian and even Jewish cultures were incorporated.

Carnival has become a proud national institution — and Brazil’s 120,000 Jews have found numerous ways to engage with the festivities around them (or escape them altogether, should they so choose).

Here is an appetizer of this blowout Brazilian party highlighting five of the most Jewish ways to spend Carnival. Read on for a vicarious glimpse — or, if you’re lucky enough to be in Brazil this weekend, head to one of these hotspots, slap on some sunscreen, grab a “caipirinha” and prepare to get your samba on!

SAO PAULO PARADE

This year there’s hot Jewish news at the Sao Paulo Sambadrome — a samba arena with a concrete runway the length of nearly six football fields lined with stands that hold 27,000 spectators.

Two Ashkenazi Jews, Ronny Potolski and Jairo Roizen, are making headlines for their joint debuts as songwriters and composers for their first-division samba schools, Unidos do Peruche and Perola Negra. (A samba school is a sort of club in which thousands of members practice and perform in huge compounds devoted to samba. Structured like a guild, they have a strong community basis and are usually associated with and named after a neighborhood.)

In fact, Potolski’s love of samba is so deep that it inspired the real deal. In 2008, he fell in love with Thais Paraguassu, an amazing porta-bandeira, a female dancer who carries the samba school’s flag. Paraguassu converted to Judaism and the two married last year.

You can samba with Potolski, Roizen and Paraguassu at one of Sao Paulo’s 14 schools performing on Friday and Saturday.

RIO SAMBADROME

Over 1 million tourists from around the world come to enjoy Carnival in Rio. Prior to hosting events in the 2016 Summer Olympics, the Rio Sambadrome will showcase 26 samba schools that will wow spectators with their exquisite choreography and elaborate floats. (If you can’t join the 60,000 lucky ones in the stands along the nearly half-mile-long runway, there’s a live TV broadcast that reaches some 2 billion viewers.)

Generations ago, Jewish engagement in Rio Carnival took place at Yiddish Avenid, a nickname for the area in downtown Rio de Janeiro where most of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled between the 1920s and 1960s. Here, Jews exchanged klezmer and other European music traditions with those of their lower-class Afro-Brazilian neighbors. The neighborhood is part of a larger district known as “Little Africa” that’s now recognized as the cradle of samba.

Jewish themes often permeate Rio’s majestic parade, though that’s not the case this year. In 2003, the Mangueira samba school won second place — yes, there is a jury and a trophy — for depicting the story of the Ten Commandments, including a float in the shape of a Star of David and costumes embellished with sidelocks, tefillin, small Torahs and dreidels.

However, Rio’s parade often mixes the sacred and the profane, and it’s famous for igniting controversy around samba songs and themes. In 2008, for example, a planned Jewish-themed float by the Viradouro samba school made headlines for portraying piles of Holocaust victims’ bodies and even a dancing Hitler. Fortunately it was banned before the show started.

Yet like most Brazilians, Rio’s Jews can be found among the celebrants cheering for their favored samba school.

STREET BLOCOS IN RIO

Blocos are street party groups that joyfully dance, sing, drink, flirt, kiss and do, well, whatever else among the skillful drummers playing samba. This year in Rio, 505 blocos are set to perform.

Founded by a group of 13 youths, including nine Jews, the bloco Sargento Pimenta — Portuguese for “Sergeant Pepper” — has quickly become a phenomenon. It draws some 180,000 people who want to dance and sing to samba versions of Beatles hits.

About 10 percent of Pimenta’s 140 musicians are Jewish, so if you scream “shalom” during their presentation on Monday, you may hear “baruch haba,” the Hebrew salute for welcome, as a reply. Give it a shot!

Pimenta has performed in some Jewish weddings where traditional Jewish songs were played.

“But our bloco does not have a religion, it belongs to Carnival,” Leonardo Stul, one of its founders, told JTA.

ERETZOPOLIS OR GUARUSHALAYIM

After a 90-minute drive from Rio, you reach Teresopolis, a cozy mountain town. So many of Rio’s Jews keep a vacation home here that it’s also known as Eretzopolis, a riff on Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Those who don’t have a condo here tend to have relatives or friends who do.

During Carnival, the small local Jewish population of 500 triples with the influx of Rio residents seeking cooler temperatures and a more peaceful environment.

But for those who can’t disconnect from the thrill, the Carnival ball held by WIZO – the global Jewish women’s volunteer organization dedicated to social welfare — is the place to be, especially if you have kids. Because Purim always falls very close to Carnival, the Jewish holiday is always the theme. The Queen Esther pageant, which closes the ball, is a must-go for little girls – see if you can count how many are dressed as Elsa from “Frozen.”

“We are very glad to see that our ball has become a much-awaited event in our community,” WIZO Brazil’s president, Silene Balassiano, told JTA.

For the Jews of Sao Paulo, a traditional spot to escape Carnival craziness is a condo in the coastal city of Guraruja — sometimes known as Guarushalayim, an amalgam of Yerushalayim, the name of Jerusalem in Hebrew, and Guaruja.

SHALOM, BAHIA!

Bahia, in northeast Brazil, is known as the country’s most musical state. It’s the epicenter of African culture here and birthplace of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art.

Capoeira has become a hit in Israel — as such, an estimated 2,000 Israeli tourists disembark in Bahia’s capital city, Salvador, from December through Carnival, according to a local Jewish source.

Forget about sambadromes here; instead, Israelis and local Jews meet at “trios eletricos.” Unlike Rio’s blocos, which are mostly stationary, trios are trucks loaded with speakers and topped with a stage that move through three official routes along the city’s streets. Behind them, some 2 million people dance along more than 15 miles of streets.

During Carnival, local synagogues are said to welcome some 200 Israelis for Shabbat dinners.

“The vast majority are backpackers who have just finished their military service in Israel and come to South America to celebrate,” said Mauricio Laukenickas, who runs a local travel agency. “Whether you are Israeli, or wherever you come from, baruch habah to Carnival in Bahia.”

Ex-Brazilian official likens media treatment of ex-president to Nazis against Jews


An influential Brazilian ex-governor and government minister compared the media treatment of ex-President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to that of the Nazis against Jews and other minorities during the Holocaust.

“The media makes Lula the Jew of the decade, like the Nazis made Jews and communists the target of their hatred against social democracy,” Tarso Genro, former governor of Brazil’s southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul, tweeted Sunday.

Lula, a leftist, is accused being part of Brazil’s biggest political and corruption scandal. President Dilma Rousseff, his political protege, is facing an impeachment process that could put an end to the 12-year rule of their Workers Party.

Genro, also of the Workers Party, has served as governor of Rio Grande do Sul and mayor of Porto Alegre, as well as the minister of education and Justice. His late mother was born Jewish, though Genro does not recognize himself as such. Years ago, a photo of Genro putting on tefillin aided by Orthodox rabbis was widely publicized.

The ex-governor has a history of anti-Israel moves and pro-Palestinian friendliness, as well as referring to the Nazi regime to establish comparisons. In August, in another mention of Lula, Genro said security guards around a popular giant hot air puppet depicting the ex-president in a striped uniform reminded him of Nazi guards.

In 2014, his state’s largest synagogue – the Reform temple SIBRA – made a public announcement declaring Genro persona non grata for his “disdain and total lack of consideration of our community.”

Rio Grande do Sul state is home to some 12,000 Jews, making it Brazil’s third largest Jewish community after Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The state also hosts a large number of descendants of German immigrants and neo-Nazi incidents are not uncommon.

Brazilian Jewish-themed film expected to set box-office record


A movie based on the biblical story of Moses is expected to become the most-watched Brazilian film in the country’s history.

Pre-sales alone for “Os Dez Mandamentos,” a literal translation to Portuguese of “The Ten Commandments,” have reached 2.4 million tickets, which is much more than most Brazilian blockbusters after several weeks of screening. The film, which opens Thursday in Brazil, is expected to outnumber “Elite Troop 2,” the 2010 blockbuster that had 11 million viewers.

The nearly two-hour epic brings to the big screen a summary of the successful prime-time TV soap opera of the same name that aired in 2015. Set in ancient Egypt and loosely based on the story of Moses, “Os Dez Mandamentos” features characters based on biblical figures, while others are created.

Brazil’s second most-watched TV channel, Record, produced the film and soap opera. The channel is owned by the founder of one of Brazil’s main Pentecostal churches, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

Pastors reportedly have been encouraging their congregants to see the film. The soap opera drew 144 million spectators daily in Brazil, which has the largest Catholic population in the world

Why the Zika virus is causing alarm


Global health officials have said that the Zika virus, which has been linked to severe birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil, is rapidly spreading in the Americas and could infect 3 million to 4 million people. The race is on to develop a Zika vaccine. 

Here are some questions and answers about the virus and the current outbreak.

How do people become infected?

The virus is transmitted to people through the bite of infected female Aedes mosquitoes, the same type of mosquito that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said Aedes mosquitoes are found in all countries in the Americas except Canada and continental Chile, and the virus will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.

How do you treat Zika infection?

There is no treatment or vaccine available for Zika infection. Companies and scientists are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine for Zika, but one is not expected to be ready for months or years. 

How dangerous is it?

The PAHO said there is no evidence that Zika can cause death, but some cases have been reported with more serious complications in patients with pre-existing medical conditions.

The virus has been linked to microcephaly, a condition in newborns marked by abnormally small heads and brains that have not developed properly. It also has been associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body's immune system attacks part of the nervous system. Scientists are studying whether there is a causal link between Zika and these two disorders.

How is Zika related to microcephaly?

Health officials have yet to establish a direct causal relationship between Zika virus infection and birth defects, but it is strongly suspected. Brazil has reported 3,700 cases of suspected microcephaly that may be linked to Zika. It is unclear whether in pregnant women the virus crosses the placenta and causes microcephaly. Research in Brazil indicates the greatest microcephaly risk appears to be associated with infection during the first trimester of pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of Zika infection? 

People who get Zika virus disease typically have a mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain and fatigue that can last for two to seven days. But as many as 80 percent of people infected never develop symptoms. The symptoms are similar to those of dengue or chikungunya, which are transmitted by the same type of mosquito.

How can Zika be contained?

Efforts to control the spread of the virus focus on eliminating mosquito breeding sites and taking precautions against mosquito bites such as using insect repellent and mosquito nets. U.S. health officials have advised pregnant women to avoid travel to Latin American and Caribbean countries where they may be exposed to Zika.

How widespread is the outbreak in the Americas?

Health officials said Zika cases have been reported in more than 30 countries ranging from the Americas to Ireland to Australia in the current outbreak. Brazil has been the nation most affected. Other nations and territories include Barbados, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, Suriname, Venezuela and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the PAHO. (http://tinyurl.com/hoq6qqo)

What is the history of the Zika virus?

The Zika virus is found in tropical locales with large mosquito populations. Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Southern Asia and the Western Pacific. The virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and was first identified in people in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania, according to the World Health Organization.

Can Zika be transmitted through sexual contact?

Two cases of possible person-to-person sexual transmission has been described, but the PAHO said more evidence is needed to confirm whether sexual contact is a means of Zika transmission. 

The PAHO also said Zika can be transmitted through blood, but this is an infrequent transmission mechanism. There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted to babies through breast milk.

What other complications are associated with Zika?

The WHO says because no big Zika outbreaks were recorded before 2007, little is known about complications caused by infection. During an outbreak of Zika from 2013-2014 in French Polynesia, national health authorities reported an unusual increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome. Health authorities in Brazil have also reported an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Long-term health consequences of Zika infection remain unclear. Other uncertainties surround the incubation period of the virus and how Zika interacts with other viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes such as dengue.

Palestinian Authority envoy commemorates Holocaust in Brazil


The ambassador of the Palestinian Authority in Brazil joined several Jewish and non-Jewish officials to commemorate the Holocaust at a ceremony in Brazil’s capital.

“I could not be absent. It is very important to remember this date,” the PA envoy, Ibrahim Alzeben, declared at the event in Brasilia in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The ambassadors of Germany, Poland, Russia and Ukraine also attended the Jan. 27 event. The majority of Brazil’s 120,000-strong Jewish community, which is mostly Ashkenazi, has origins in those countries.

However, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was absent for the third year in a row.

“By keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, we alert the present and future generations about the moral abyss we face when prejudice becomes the rule and intolerance becomes the practice,” said the Rousseff statement read by Civil House Minister Jacques Wagner, who is Jewish.

A special recognition was paid to Ben Abraham and Aleksander Laks, the former presidents of the Brazilian Holocaust Survivors Associations in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, who both died in 2015. In an ecumenical moment, a teenage member of an Afro-Brazilian religion who made headlines after she was attacked by stones last year lit one of the menorah candles representing the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

“Only a few decades after the Holocaust, the old anti-Semitism has been updated as anti-Zionism: the denial of the Jews’ right to have their State of Israel. In Brazil, we are still fortunate to be far from radicalism and violent actions,” said Fernando Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization.

Israel has not had an ambassador in Brasilia since December. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nomination of Dani Dayan, a former settler leader in the West Bank, remains unapproved by Rousseff since August and has set off a diplomatic row.

Israel presses Brazil to accept pro-settler envoy


Brazil's reluctance to accept an Israeli ambassador who is a West Bank settler has set off a diplomatic crisis and led to concerns in the Israeli government that the clash could encourage pro-Palestinian activism against it.

The appointment four months ago of Dani Dayan, a former head of the Jewish settlement movement, did not go down well with Brazil's left-leaning government, which has supported Palestinian statehood in recent years.

Israel's previous ambassador, Reda Mansour, left Brasilia last week and the Israeli government said on Sunday Brazil risked degrading bilateral relations if Dayan were not allowed to succeed him.

“The State of Israel will leave the level of diplomatic relations with Brazil at the secondary level if the appointment of Dani Dayan is not confirmed,” Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israel’s Channel 10 TV, saying Dayan would remain the sole nominee.

She said Israel would lobby Brasilia through the Brazilian Jewish community, confidants of President Dilma Rousseff and direct appeals from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Brazilian government officials declined to comment on whether Rousseff will accept the nomination of the Argentine-born Dayan. But one senior Foreign Ministry official told Reuters: “I do not see that happening.”

The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said Israel would have to choose a different envoy because the choice of Dayan has further worsened relations that turned sour in 2010 when Brazil decided to recognize Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and settled.

Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005 but claims East Jerusalem as its indivisible capital and wants to keep swathes of West Bank settlements under any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, angered Israel by drawing Brazil closer to Iran.

Tensions rose last year when an Israeli foreign ministry spokesman called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf” after Brasilia recalled its ambassador from Israel to protest a military offensive in Gaza.

Brazil's government was also angered by the announcement of Dayan's appointment by Netanyahu in a Twitter message on Aug. 5 before Brasilia had been informed, let alone agreed to the new envoy as is the diplomatic norm.

Over the weekend, Dayan went on the offensive to defend his nomination, telling Israeli media that Netanyahu's government was not doing enough to press Brazil to accept him. Dayan said not doing so could create a precedent barring settlers from representing Israel abroad.

Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said ties with Brazil were “good and important”, noting Israel's recent opening of a new consulate in Brazil and the business opportunities for Israeli security firms during the Olympic Games to be held in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Israel has a considerable role in providing avionics technology for Brazil's aerospace and defense industry.

Celso Amorim, a former Brazilian foreign and defense minister, said on Friday that the diplomatic dispute over Dayan's appointment showed that “it is time the Brazilian armed forces reduced their dependence on Israel.”

Fleeing recession and violence, Brazilian Jews moving to Israel in record numbers


For four years, llana Lerner Kalmanovich rode a hot and crowded bus three hours each day to reach the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she was pursuing degrees in physical education and nutrition.

Police raids into nearby slums, or favelas, often blocked the freeway, and stray bullets from gun battles with criminals were a constant threat. Even on the Federal University campus, the oldest and among the most prestigious in Brazil, Kalmanovich felt unsafe. Robberies were commonplace and, every now then, corpses were found in the nearby woods.

So in 2007, Kalmanovich moved to Israel. She had spent a whole year there a decade earlier on a youth movement program and fallen in love with the country. And though she holds German citizenship and could have built a new life for herself in Europe, there was never any doubt she would make her home in the Jewish state.

“Israel is the place where I feel at home, happy, among my people,” Kalmanovich told JTA. “We say ‘Shabbat shalom’ to the bus driver, to the garbage man, to the sales clerk. Everyone shares mostly the same social and economic level. We all celebrate the same national holidays. It’s like living in a huge kibbutz of 8 million people. Here I am the rule, not the exception.”

Kalmanovich is not alone. Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Brazil has more than doubled in the past four years, from 191 in 2011 to over 400 so far this year. The average growth in aliyah for all of Latin America in the same period was just 7 percent. Though it has approximately half the Jewish population of neighboring Argentina, Brazil has sent more immigrants to Israel for two years running. An estimated 120,000 Jews live in Brazil.

“They seek a better future,” said Gladis Berezowsky, 58, who helps run Beit Brasil, a nongovernmental organization based in Israel established in 2014 to assist Brazilians seeking to move to Israel.

Brazil, a nation of 200 million, is facing its steepest recession in a quarter century, with the economy expected to shrink by almost 2 percent this year – down from more than 7 percent GDP growth in 2010. The Brazilian real has shrunk 138 percent compared to the American dollar in the past five years and the inflation rate has edged up to 10 percent.

The country is also one of the bloodiest on earth, with more than 58,000 Brazilians dying a violent death in 2014.

“More people are killed every year in Brazil through intentional violence than anywhere else on the planet, including most of the world’s war zones combined,” said Robert Muggah, a research director of a Rio-based think tank that studies the intersection between violence and the drug trade.

“The absurd violence in Rio was postponing our plans to have children,” said Silvia Brafman, 33, who moved from Brazil’s second-largest city to Haifa in late October with her husband. “The high unemployment rate and lack of opportunities were the second reason to head for Israel. The current stabbing wave here does not scare us at all. What really frightens me most is the language, which can delay my entering the job market.”

Fabio Erlich, 33, hasn’t had that problem. Erlich, who moved last year with his wife and three daughters to the central Israeli city of Modiin, secured jobs at two Jerusalem yeshivas before he arrived with help from Brazilian friends who were already established in the country.

Brazilian immigrant Fabio Erlich, far left, with his family and other Brazilian emigres in the Israeli city of Modiin. (Courtesy of Erlich family)Fabio Erlich, standing left, with his family and other Brazilian emigres in the Israeli city of Modiin. Photo courtesy of Erlich family

“We wanted to give our children a better quality of life in the educational, social and religious fields,” Erlich said. “Israel allows you to be a Jew with no limitations, not only in the outside but mainly deep within. Finding a job in Israel made our big Zionist dream come true.”

Brazilian Jews have traditionally boasted a comfortable upper-middle-class life, but things are changing. Several Jewish day schools have merged or are in the process in order to survive, while administrators at some of them say the number of scholarship applications has never been higher.

“We have seen a 100 percent rise in requests recently,” said Yehoshua Goldman, the chief Rio representative of Chabad, which runs Lar da Esperanca (Home of Hope), an organization for Jews in financial need.

Despite the economic slowdown, real estate prices have nearly tripled in some parts of Rio in the past five years. Carlos Cohen, 36, a skilled IT specialist, could not afford the exorbitant rents, so he found an apartment in a favela near his office. When his daughter was born, Cohen realized he needed to get out.

“The high-tech market here is very vibrant,” said Cohen, who moved to the coastal city of Netanya with his family in 2012. “You only remain jobless if you want. We are proud to call this place ours, where we can truly put our citizenship in practice. Urban violence here is nearly zero, the safety feeling is absolute. We now can finally raise our family in a better place.”

For Martin and Michele Teitelbaum, being robbed in broad daylight in Higienopolis, an upscale and heavily Jewish neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, was the last straw. In 2010, they took their three children – ages 2, 5 and 7 – and headed for Raanana, a city in central Israel with a large population of immigrants from Europe and the Americas.

“In Brazil, I was merely one more trying to survive,” Martin said.

“Life was sort of superfluous there, with many inverted values,” Michele added. “Here in Israel we value what must be valued.”

Psychologist Rita Cohen Wolf is a neighbor of the Teitelbaums in Raanana, where she settled in 1977 after she had been robbed eight times in Brazil. The last time, she had a gun pointed at her head.

In 2014, Wolf posted an open letter to President Dilma Rousseff on Facebook in which she criticized the violence in Brazil. She was astonished to see it republished in the Brazilian press.

“In Brazil, violence is felt every day,” Wolf told JTA. “In Israel, we don’t feel threatened with imminent violence. The feeling of security with our police and army plus unity of the population reinforces the generalized feeling that we are not alone.”

Marcus Moraes is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals. He also produces news content for Web sites.

Brazilian president reportedly unhappy with appointment of settler leader as envoy


Brazilian President Dilma Roussef reportedly has told Israel she is unhappy with Israel’s selection for ambassador to her country, former settler leader Dani Dayan.

Ynet reported this week that Roussef, under pressure from Palestinian groups and figures in her country to reject Dayan, has privately expressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government her unhappiness with the selection.

Governments rarely outright reject ambassadors, which can precipitate a crisis in relations. Dayan, who lives in a West Bank settlement, is a former chairman of the Settlers Council.

Israelis have not directly commented, although Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister, on Monday tweeted in Hebrew that the bid to get Brazil to reject Dayan is “embarrassing, dangerous and ugly.”

Tzipi Hotoveli, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, in a statement to media did not address the report directly, but said that Dayan’s “public trajectory and ideology ought to be an advantage, and not a disadvantage in representing the position of the current government, which supports our right to settlements in Judea and Samaria.”

Dayan is a member of the Jewish Home Party, which is currently part of the governing coalition.

The current government, elected in March, is the first since the Oslo accords not to include a party that accepts the two-state solution.

Ahead of Olympics, 2 synagogues to open in Rio de Janeiro


Rio de Janeiro is set to open two new Orthodox synagogues ahead of the Brazilian city’s hosting of the 2016 Olympic Games.

One of the new synagogues will open in August in the neighborhood of Ipanema, the famed tourist destination known for its beach scene. The opening was announced Wednesday on the website of CONIB, the umbrella group representing Brazil’s Jewish communities.

Additionally, the Chabad Lubavitch movement is preparing to open a kosher hotel with a synagogue ahead of the games.

Rio de Janeiro has approximately 20 synagogues serving 40,000 people, but receives many Jewish tourists. Many more are expected when Rio hosts the Olympic Games next year.

In Ipanema, the Edmond J. Safra Synagogue and community center will have 20,000 square feet of space, featuring study rooms, event halls and libraries in addition to the Sephardic-style shul, the institution’s rabbi, Gabriel Aboutboul, told JTA on Thursday.

Ipanema, Aboutboul said, currently has one small synagogue serving about 1,000 Jewish families who reside in the area. That building, he added, “no longer has the capacity to cater to everyone, forcing some to go out of the neighborhood for religious and community services.”

The new building, he said, “is meant to fix that for the new generation.”

“Naturally, the new synagogue will service tourists, though its prime function is for the community,” Aboutboul said.

Last year, Ipanema and the adjacent coastal neighborhood of Copacabana received a new eruv, a demarcation of an area that permits observant Jews to carry objects on Shabbat.

Brazil Jewish schools conclude first national conference


Brazil’s Jewish communities held their first national conference for the faculty of the country’s approximately 20 major Jewish schools.

Titled “National Encounter for Jewish Schools,” the two-day event’s opening session in Sao Paulo Sunday was attended by representatives from 18 Jewish schools from that city as well as from Rio de Janeiro and other locales, including Recife in the north and Porto Alegre in Brazil’s south.

Participants said they would work to turn the conference into an annual event.

In a statement about the March 8-9 event, CONIB, the umbrella group that organized the meeting, wrote that one of the objectives was to form a Jewish education network that transcends some of the ideological divides that have limited parents’ choices in the country. Brazil, home to South America’s second-largest Jewish community, has approximately 120,000 Jews.

Silvio Hotimsky, a prominent educator and psychoanalyst from Sao Paulo who spoke at the event, said that parents seeking Jewish schools for their children were forced to choose between a more secular Jewish education that inspired unconditional support for Israel as one of its core values, and a religious attitude that cultivated insularism.

“In the 19th and 20th century, Judaism began being regarded as part of dichotomy: Either it was connected to Israel, or it was connected to religion,” he said “Thus, Judaism’s spiritual and cultural vision was diminished.” Parents, he said, need “an option that connects to the root” of Judaism.

Another issue discussed at the conference was job placement for teachers who graduate from a recently launched program that trains teachers in Jewish studies at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, with support from the Jewish community. The program was launched in 2010 but not all the graduates have been able to find work at Jewish schools, according to Sonia Kramer, a teacher at the institution.

Coincidentally, the Brazilian conference took place at the same time North American Jewish day school educators were convening in Philadelphia. That conference drew more than 1,000 professionals from over 400 schools in the United States and Canada.

Israel, Brazilian Jews slam recall of Brazilian ambassador from Tel Aviv


Representatives of Brazil’s Jewish community said their government’s recall of its ambassador from Israel amounted to a defense of Hamas.

The statement by CONIB, an umbrella body, came Thursday, a day after Brasilia announced that it was recalling for consultation its ambassador to Israel, Henrique Sardinha, to protest Israel’s attacks on Hamas in Gaza.

CONIB expressed its “indignation with the announcement sent Wednesday, which evidences a one-sided attitude to the conflict in Gaza in which the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticizes Israel and ignores the actions of the terrorist group Hamas,” CONIB wrote in a statement titled “Reaction to Itamaraty’s declaration  which criticizes Israel and spares Hamas any criticism.”

Itamaraty is the name of the palace that houses the ministry.

In its statement Wednesday, the ministry wrote: “The Brazilian government considers as unacceptable the escalation of violence between Israel and Palestine. We vigorously condemn the use of disproportionate force by Israel in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in an elevated number of civilians victims, including women and children.”

The statement mentioned neither Hamas nor any other offensive actions by Palestinians.

Israel also condemned the Brazilian statement.

“This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Jerusalem Post. “The moral relativism behind this move makes Brazil an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one who creates problems rather than contributes to solutions.”

Palestinian Authority FA says official’s Brazil trip blocked by Israel


Israel has prevented a senior Palestinian soccer delegate from traveling to this month's World Cup in Brazil, his federation said on Sunday.

The Palestine FA (PFA) has been lobbying world governing body FIFA to impose sanctions against Israel over restrictions on the movement of players from the blockaded Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank.

PFA president Jibril Rajoub told Reuters last month that the relationship between the two Middle East neighbours had deteriorated after the recent arrest of a Palestine footballer and the shooting of two other players.

On Sunday the PFA, in what it described as the third such case, said its deputy general-secretary Mohammad Ammassi was denied permission by Israel to travel from Gaza to the West Bank, from where he would cross to Jordan and on to Brazil.

“This is not the first time Mr Amassi has been denied a travel permit,” the PFA said in a statement.

“Israeli authorities have nothing against him, which clearly makes this rejection a temperamental and arbitrary measure that does not help the efforts to find a solution to the situation of Palestinian football.”

Israeli officials were checking the details of the case and had yet to comment.

Gaza is under the control of armed Hamas Islamists who advocate Israel's destruction and have often clashed with it.

The U.S.-backed rival Palestinian administration in the West Bank signed a unity deal with Hamas in April, prompting Israel to call off peace negotiations with it.

Rajoub said in May that FIFA had established a task force that included Palestinian and Israeli delegates but this had failed to improve the main issues of freedom of movement and access for Palestinian athletes.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Ken Ferris

Diagnosis put brother on mission


David L. Neale, a prominent bankruptcy attorney and major donor to AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), was stunned when the call came from Brazil in late 1999: His younger brother, John (not his real name), then in his mid-30s and previously robust, was gravely ill in Rio de Janeiro.

John had been producing a concert at the famed opera house in the jungle city of Manaus when he collapsed in the throes of a virulent fever and had to be airlifted to the hospital. By the time Neale, his mother and sister flew down to Rio, John was in a coma, the result of a severe case of meningococcal meningitis.

His doctors promptly dropped a bombshell: John was suffering from AIDS and had apparently been in denial about the mysterious fevers that had landed him in bed for weeks at a time over the past year. “I was shocked,” said Neale, who hadn’t previously known that his brother was HIV positive.

Even after John’s condition was stabilized, he refused to return to the United States for treatment until several months later, when Neale received another emergency call from Brazil. “They had had doctors coming to John’s apartment, to do spinal taps for him in his bed,” recalled Neale, who has been consistently named by Los Angeles magazine as one of its 100 “super lawyers” in the bankruptcy field. “They had given him all these steroids, and his skin was waxy and yellow — he really looked awful.”

Neale hustled his brother onto a plane for Los Angeles, “which was in itself an ordeal because he couldn’t walk,” the attorney recalled. After landing in L.A., “I immediately drove him to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai [Medical Center], where they told me that they hadn’t seen someone this ill with AIDS for years, given the advances in medications, and that I should be prepared for my brother to die.”

John survived, after 12 weeks in the hospital, yet he was weak and debilitated, and the family panicked. “I had no clue about what to do in a situation like this,” Neale said. “And because my brother had lived out of the country for so long, he had no health insurance, no place to live, nothing.”

The situation remained grim until, through Neale’s then-wife, the family was introduced to an official at APLA, which currently helps care for some 11,000 people with HIV in Los Angeles. It was the family’s first stop once John was out of the hospital: “He was literally lying on the floor in an office there,” Neale said.  “But APLA was a very comforting influence; it was like we were frantic, but they weren’t. They made things very manageable; otherwise it would have been overwhelming.”

APLA workers calmly helped to set John up on disability and Medi-Cal, so that he could receive the AIDS drug cocktails that cost around $5,000 per month, Neale said; they sent him to the right doctors, arranged for a hospital bed and IVs to be set up in Neale’s living room, and even for John to procure a driver’s license and other documents to get him re-established in the United States.  “I was so grateful,” Neale said.  

Thus, he immediately agreed when APLA officials asked him to serve on the group’s board for a full six-year term limit; since that ended three years ago, Neale has continued to fund the group, having donated sums in the six figures over the years. John, he said, has now regained his health and is back in Brazil producing concerts and other events.

“Thousands of low-income Los Angeles County residents with HIV/AIDS have benefited and continue to benefit from the vision, leadership and continuing support of David,” said Craig E. Thompson, APLA’s executive director.  “Admirably, he built on his personal connection with HIV disease to become a key board leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

Neale, a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia University law school, has also been involved in Jewish causes, such as donating to campus Hillels and serving on the board of the American Friends of Hebrew University — he studied at Hebrew University for a time as a youth. He traces his philanthropy, in part, to the influence of his parents: His late father had been active on the board of the family’s synagogue in Cedarhurst, N.Y., while his mother has run the Head Start program in Williamsburg, N.Y., for the past 40 years, where she encourages low-income children to stay in school. “She’s always been very conscious of people who have less,” Neale said.

The health crisis of HIV/AIDS has also shifted to those who are underprivileged, he added.  “It’s no longer a fashionable cause, as people think everyone’s fine now, with the new medications,” he said. “But they don’t think about lower-income people, African-Americans or the Latino community — all these places where AIDS is still a huge problem. It’s like it’s not a white person’s problem anymore.

“In the Jewish community, people often give to Jewish charities, and I’ve done some of that, but I feel like AIDS is a cause that doesn’t have all the support it could use. It’s not like people are fixed and the disease is eradicated. It’s still a continuing and vital issue that we should pay attention to.”

Let’s be Brazil


I have outrage envy.

For nearly two weeks, more than a million citizens across Brazil have taken to the streets to protest political corruption, economic injustice, poor health care, inadequate schools, lousy mass transit, a crumbling infrastructure and — yes, “>massive demonstrations have “>income inequality, ranking 121st out of 133 countries.  But the U.S. ranks 80th, just below Sri Lanka, Mauritania and Nicaragua.

Wealth distribution.  There are only six countries in the world whose “>growth in student achievement in math, reading and science in Brazil is 4 percent of a standard deviation.  But U.S. educational achievement is growing at less than half that rate: 1.6 percent, just below Iran.

Corruption.  Brazil ranks 121 in “>U.S. ranks 25th – below most other advanced industrial countries and even behind some developing nations, like Oman and Barbados.

Health care.  Brazil’s health care system ranks 125th out of 190 countries.  But the U.S., jingoistic rhetoric notwithstanding, is only 38th.  Among our peer nations – wealthy democracies – “>least progressive in the industrial world.  The most massive transfer of wealth in history, plus a cult of fiscal austerity, is destroying our middle class.  Tuition is increasingly unaffordable, and retirement is increasingly unavailable. The banks that stole trillions of dollars of Americans’ worth have not only gone unpunished; they’re still at it.

For a moment, it looked like the Occupy movement might change some of that.  It’s striking how closely the complaints within Brazil about their protesters are already tracking the criticism of Occupy made in the U.S.:  The only thing keeping them going is the police’s overreaction.  They have too many demands.  Their demands are “>They’re violent. They’re vandals, delinquents, drunks, druggies, terrorists. 

Here at home, those charges, and the advent of cold weather, proved fatal.  So oligarchs rock, plutocrats roll and Occupy rolled over.  Today, with both political parties hooked on special interest money, with demagogues given veto power and media power, hope feels naïve.  You’d have to have just fallen off the turnip truck to look at our corrupt and dysfunctional government and believe that we are the change we’ve been waiting for.

That learned helplessness is what democracy’s vampires drink.  Wouldn’t it be sweet if Brazil’s protest movement turned out to be the garlic we’ve been waiting for?


Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

Brazil’s president: Denying the Holocaust means repeating it


Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said that “the Holocaust is repeated when denied, relativized or softened.”

Roussef's comments were made on Jan. 30 during an event in Brasilia in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. The event was attended by several Brazilian government officials and Jewish representatives from across the country.

Backed by the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country's Jewish umbrella institution, the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony takes place in a different Brazilian city every year.

“We must always remember that the Holocaust is repeated when denied, relativized or when one tried to soften it,” Rousseff stated.

Rousseff added that democracy is the best means to prevent tragedies like the Holocaust, the three centuries of black slavery in Brazil, and the 1964-1985 period when the country lived under dictatorship.

The ceremony also honored Brazil's only two 'Righteous Among the Nations,' the designation used by Israel's national Holocaust museum to recognize non-Jews who saved Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Luis Martins Souza Dantas, who served as Brazil's ambassador in France, and Aracy Guimarães Rosa, who worked at the Brazilian consulate in Hamburg, saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust by issuing visas to Brazil.

Iranian diplomat in Brazil: Soon there will be no place for Zionists


A Brazilian newspaper has published an opinion article by an Iranian diplomat asserting that “there will soon be no place for Zionists in the Middle East.”

Ali Mohaghegh, first secretary of the Iranian embassy in Brasilia, made the asertion in article published last month in the newspaper Folha de S. Paolo. “This [Israeli] regime that once sought to dominate the land between Nile and the Euphrates, now needs to hide behind a wall,” Mohaghegh wrote. He added: “The Zionist regime of Israel is the foremost reason for international terrorism.”

CONIB, the representative body of Brazilian Jewish communities, condemned the opinion piece published as “unacceptable.”

Several responses to Mohaghegh have appeared in Brazilian media, including in Folha.

Flavio Morgenstern, a translator and writer for the commentary site Papo de Homem, accused the paper of “ceding inches to anti-Semitism.”

Writing in O Globo, another major Brazilian daily, Osias Wurman, Israel’s honorary consul in Rio de Janeiro, accused Iran of state terrorism.

Brazil’s Jewish community announces creation of Anne Frank ‘educational network’


Brazil’s Jewish community sent directors of five Brazilian schools named after Anne Frank on a Holocaust study tour in Amsterdam.

The study trip is the first step in the creation of an educational network, according to an announcement by CONIB, the central body representing the Brazilian Jewish community.

The network’s schools would teach tolerance according to methods developed by the Amsterdam-based Anne Frank House educational institute. 

In the Netherlands, the delegation met Holocaust survivor Nanette König, who studied with Anne Frank. They visited Westerbork concentration camp, where Koning and Frank awaited deportation to Auschwitz. The visitors returned to Brazil last month.

“We learned a lot and there was a lot of crying, a lot of emotion,” said Marcelo Lins, a Brazilian journalist who joined the delegation. “We learned that the Dutch Jewish community was decimated, and we saw that, today, Amsterdam is once more a tolerant city, where tolerance is worked on.”

In Brazil, the schools will apply the Anne Frank House teaching methods and materials “which spread the values which Anne Frank represented, serving tolerance and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism,” the announcement by CONIB read.

The trip was organized the educators’ delegation together with the Sao Paulo Jewish community and the Anne Frank House, an educational institute.

In parallel, CONIB has launched a national essay contest about Anne Frank – a German-born Jewish teenager who hid in the house on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht for two years. She was arrested on August 4, 1944, and sent to Westerbork. The diary she kept became an international bestseller. The house became a museum which last year drew a record 1,104,233 registered visitors.


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