What is behind the significant rise in aliya from Brazil to Israel?

Jewish Agency notes spike in aliya from Brazil; Sharansky honored at Jewish community conference in Sao Paulo.

JEWISH AGENCY chairman Natan Sharansky, the agency’s Brazil head Revital Poleg (on his right) and agency emissaries and staff smile in Sao Paulo last week (photo credit: ANDRE YERUSHALMI)
JEWISH AGENCY chairman Natan Sharansky, the agency’s Brazil head Revital Poleg (on his right) and agency emissaries and staff smile in Sao Paulo last week
(photo credit: ANDRE YERUSHALMI)
There has been a significant rise in immigration to Israel from Brazil, with as many as 700 newcomers expected by the end of this year, according to the Jewish Agency.
The head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation to Brazil, Revital Poleg, said the jump in aliya is not for political reasons.
“Certainly the economic crisis in Brazil has been a catalyst, but Jews are not leaving for political reasons,” Poleg told The Jerusalem Post from Sao Paulo, ahead of the Jewish community’s annual conference there on Saturday night.
“The Jewish community is very Zionist and very connected to Israel, and their decision to make aliya is a combination of different factors, including the economic situation, issues of personal safety, educational opportunities in Israel, and of course, the possibility of living among your own people.”
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Brazil, a country of more than 200 million, has a Jewish population of 120,000, with about 55,000 Jews living in Sao Paulo and 30,000 in Rio de Janeiro, while the rest are spread out in smaller communities.
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was the guest of honor and keynote speaker to some 300 members of CONIB (Confederação Israelita do Brasil), the umbrella body representing the 14 Jewish federations in the country.
“Aliya from Brazil has risen dramatically in recent years,” Sharansky said. “Three years ago, we registered 200 olim from Brazil. Today, we can boast 650 from the beginning of the year, and by the end of 2016 the final number will be around 700, with reasonable basis to forecast yet another increase next year. To this you have to add the rising number of young participants in Israel experience programs such as Masa, for example, with 300 young Brazilians this year alone.”
Sharansky also attributed the aliya increase to a variety of causes, especially the fact that members of the Jewish community choose Israel over other countries.
“The Jewish community here in Brazil is at its core strongly connected to Israel and Zionist at heart, so that when local socioeconomic and political circumstances bring people to look for alternatives, Israel is their natural choice. Many Brazilian Jews could have opted for another place, yet chose Israel, because this choice has great added value for them,” Sharansky said.
Poleg said that Sharansky’s participation at the CONIB event was “an expression of honor and also an act of appreciation for all that the Jewish Agency is doing here.”
“I think the very fact that Sharansky was invited here is the sign of the growing relations and interchange between Israel and Brazil. The Jewish Agency activities here in Brazil are also very much connected to CONIB,” Poleg said. “One of the things I am very happy about is the good relations I have developed with the heads of CONIB over the past four years. They consider us a strategic partner, and that makes the Jewish Agency’s presence here very important.”
She also saw it as an opportunity to “enhance our relations, maybe with more shlichim [emissaries], maybe with more projects together, Jewish educational projects for example, or the activities that we have initiated with the smaller communities in the north and northeast of Brazil. It is important to reinforce those small communities, and the Jewish Agency provides us with the tools to do that.”
The aliya from Brazil is considered “a quality immigration” by the Jewish Agency, because it is composed of mostly young families and young singles looking to expand their education and develop their professional careers in Israel, Poleg said.
“The moment the Brazilian olim community grows, other factors become relevant,” she said. “Your daughter or sister is making aliya, and you consider doing it yourself. Brazilians are very family-oriented, and we are seeing a process in which they are, slowly but surely, joining each other in Israel. At the same time, the bonds between the Brazilian Jewish community and Israel are growing stronger all the time, and are very much evident in their life. People may be living in Israel, but still have businesses or relatives here in Brazil.”
While Poleg is the primary emissary, there are five others, one to Sao Paulo’s Bais Yaakov community and Netzach Movement, three others to the youth movements – Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatza’ir and Chazit Hanoar – and one to the northeastern city of Recife.
Lea Tbul, 27, who was born in Brazil and made aliya with her family at the age of six, was dispatched by the Jewish Agency to Recife, where she works closely with the leadership of the community, the local Jewish school and young adults.
“My function as a shlicha in the community allows me to create integration between organizations, to strive for full cooperation and strengthen the community’s sense of belonging and connection to Judaism and the State of Israel,” said Tbul. “I have discovered a community that is open and welcoming to a new side of Judaism.”
Recife, known for its beautiful beaches, is home to a relatively young and liberal community of some 300 families. It has the country’s oldest Jewish school, established 99 years ago, which today has 70 pupils from kindergarten to fifth grade, and the first synagogue built on the American continent, Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue, established by Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1636, which now houses a Jewish museum.
The majority of Brazilian Jews are Ashkenazi, identify as secular Zionist and belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, although there are significant Orthodox and Chabad congregations, especially in Sao Paulo, and kosher food is available in the two big cities.
In Sao Paulo, home to a powerful Syrian-Lebanese community, the Orthodox Bais Yaakov community led by the Safra family runs the biggest Jewish school and the biggest youth movement, Netzach.
The new mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella, elected just last month, is an evangelical leader who strongly supports the Jewish community and Israel, which he has visited three dozen times.
In addition, the appointment of centrist Michel Temer as the country’s president on August 31, after the impeachment of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, has been welcomed by the Jewish community. Among other things, Temer named José Serra, who is considered close to the Jewish community, as foreign minister, and Ilan Goldfajn, an Israeli-born economist, as president of the Central Bank of Brazil.
It was under Rousseff that Brazil refused to accept the appointment of former settler leader Dani Dayan as Israel’s ambassador. In the interim, no new ambassador has been announced, but veteran diplomat Dori Goren was appointed to be Israel’s consul-general in Sao Paulo.
This is the second in a series on Jewish Agency emissaries around the world.