São Paulo’s new museum seeks to educate non-Jews about being Brazilian Jews

SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Strolling down Rua Martinho Prado in downtown São Paulo, it’s hard to miss the Beth-El Temple. The small hexagonal building, adorned with Hebrew writing on its walls, which remained almost unaltered since its inauguration in 1932, stands out on the street lined with modern skyscrapers.
The temple, which has been empty since its last holiday mass in 2007, has received a new life and has been transformed into the Jewish Museum of São Paulo, which will open on December 5. It will be the largest institution in Brazil dedicated to the history of Jewish life in the country.

Each of the five floors of the museum has a different theme.

“The first thing you see just when you walk into the lobby is a piece that explores what it means to be Jewish,” explained Sergio Simon, president of the museum. That question, said Eduardo Lifchitz, a 34-year-old Hebrew and English teacher from Rio de Janeiro, is important in Brazil, where he said “people don’t know what it means to be Jewish,” he said.


“Often the image that comes to mind is the image of an ultra-Orthodox person, but they never think of people as [popular Brazilian TV personalities] Luciano Hulk, Silvio Santos or even Natalie Portman, ”said Lifchitz. “People need to know about them.”

Although no census has been conducted in more than 50 years, Simon estimates that there are 120,000 Jews in Brazil, with an estimated 60,000 in São Paulo and 30,000 in Rio de Janeiro. The rest is distributed throughout the country. São Paulo is home to several Jewish clubs, schools, a federation, and the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, considered one of the best hospitals in South America.

The building is now buzzing with activity in preparation for the next opening, but “it was a very slow process at first,” Simon said. When he first took on the task of transforming the old synagogue in 2004, rainwater was seeping through and plants had started to take over the walls.

The team’s goal was to restore the synagogue to match its original 1932 look and add a four-story glass extension to the side. They also made an effort to restore the synagogue’s stained glass, which required contacting the original manufacturer in the United States.

On the second floor, visitors come to an exhibit on the history of Temple Beth-El, including historical photos of its construction and inauguration in the early 1930s. In the dome that towers over the synagogue, a presentation of slides shows the history of the Brazilian Jewish community, through photographs of immigrants projected on the ceiling.

One of them is Simon’s father, who emigrated from Germany.

“It’s like they’re looking at the people walking through the exhibit,” he said. “This turned out better than I expected.”

The walls of the synagogue-turned-museum are covered with explanations about Jewish holidays and life cycle events, and about what used to be the synagogue’s altar, organizers placed Torah scrolls and holy books, some dating back to from the 16th and 17th centuries. There will also be “a virtual Torah that people can wear at the altar and it will explain how to read the Torah and instructions on how to use the yad,” or pointer to the Torah reading, Simon added.

That level also covers contemporary Jewish issues such as conversion, interfaith marriage, the role of sexuality and gender identity in Judaism, and B’nei Anusim, a movement of native Brazilians who believe they are descendants of European Jews. .

The emphasis is on the education of non-Jewish Brazilians.

“Brazil is a very Catholic country,” said Augusto Chagas, a 36-year-old non-Jewish risk analyst in São Paulo, who expressed his desire to visit the museum once it opens. “We often don’t know much about other religions.”

Chagas said his Jewish education focused primarily on the Holocaust. Once, on a plane to New York City, he saw a Jewish man putting on tefillin and did not know the reason behind it. Chagas hopes that your visit to the museum will give you the opportunity to learn more about such religious rituals and even about culinary traditions.

Simon’s favorite apartment is below and is dedicated to the history of the Jews in Brazil.

“Many people believe that the Jews came here because of the Second World War,” he said, “but in reality, the Jews came to Brazil as early as the 16th century.”

The first immigrants to Brazil were largely crypto-Jews, also known as Marranos or New Christians, who were forced during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions to practice Judaism in private, maintaining a Christian public image. The museum’s first two temporary exhibits will be about the Portuguese Inquisition in Brazil, which ended just 200 years ago. Between 1560 and 1821, many crypto Jews were arrested and sent back to Portugal to be assassinated.

“The display will even include instruments of torture and clothing of the inquisitors,” Simon said, “although we are limiting the number of instruments of torture on display so as not to remove the focus.”

Also on this floor are exhibits representing the first Jewish communal institutions in Brazil, dating back to 1910, when waves of Jewish immigrants, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, began arriving in Brazil, creating Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and cooperatives of credit. At first, the Jewish institutions were located in the Bom Retiro neighborhood, 20 minutes by metro from the museum.

“In this neighborhood, life was totally Jewish. Everything was written in Yiddish and Hebrew. Yiddish was spoken on the streets, ”Simon said.

While the neighborhood has given way to a more Korean influence over the past 30 years, a Jewish legacy endures through several Jewish buildings and schools that are still present in the area.

The museum also touches Brazil during and after the Holocaust.

“The Brazilian government was a friend of Hitler,” Simon noted. “And the largest Nazi party outside of Germany was located here in Brazil.”

After the war, many Jews came to Brazil as refugees, as did many German Nazis. A famous example is Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor also known as the Angel of Death, who moved to South America after the war.

The last two levels are dedicated to the modern state of Israel and the Jewish love for the written word, including the Hebrew language.

As opening day approaches, members of São Paulo’s Jewish community are excited about its potential.

Ariel Lebl, a 32-year-old Jewish fundraiser in São Paulo, sees the museum as an opportunity to reach out to non-Jewish residents and build bridges between communities.

“It will be a great place to bring political leaders, academics and children from nearby schools,” he said. “It’s about connecting people to content that they wouldn’t normally see.”

He added: “[The temple] It used to be a Jewish-only place, and now it’s a Jewish place for everyone. “


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