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Rio de Jewish?

by: Marcelo Gruman - Last updated: 2003-10-13

Beit Lubavitch in Brazi

Beit Lubavitch in Brazil

It's Friday afternoon on Ipanema beach. A group of students from Rio de Janeiro's elite South Zone - tan, tightly-muscled young men in Speedos, and plucked and polished young women in barely-there bikinis—flirt with each other as they pass around a bag of potato chips and a cup of chilled matte tea.

Later, these Cariocas, as residents of Rio are known, will hit a nightclub, the movies, or a beachfront bar. But before their evening revelry, a few of them will make a stop at "Beit Lubavitch," a congregation of the Chasidic Lubavitch sect.

American Rabbi Yehoshua Goldman and his wife Chana opened the first "Beit Lubavitch" in Rio de Janeiro 15 years ago, hoping to make the city’s 40,000-odd Jews, the majority of whom are not observant, more religious. Lubavitchers believe the more Jews they inspire to follow the commandments, the sooner the Messiah will come. Unlike other ultra-Orthodox sects, they actively encourage unobservant Jews to follow Jewish law, setting up Chabad outreach centers anywhere there are Jews, from Providence, Rhode Island to Katmandu, Nepal.

In Rio, the Lubavitch priority is to prevent Jewish youth from assimilating into Brazil’s predominantly Catholic mainstream culture. According to the leaders of Rio’s Jewish community, the number of intermarriages is increasing, especially by second and third generation Brazilian Jews, who are wealthier and more comfortable in gentile society. "Of course we are bringing a lot of Jewish youth closer to Judaism, but not as much as we would like!" wrote Rabbi Goldman in an e-mail. "The assimilation is still very big and Masciach [sic] did not yet come!"

Goldman has adopted tactics designed to appeal to his youthful, fun-loving target audience. The center hosts free Shabbat dinners for the under-30 set that feature sushi after services. At Purim parties, the alcohol flows freely, and the rabbis won’t scold a woman who wears a sleeveless dress to a Rosh Hashannah service. "I see no contradiction between the social and the religious!" says Rabbi Goldman. "We have to learn to use the facilities that modernity offers us today, such as communication, technology, ‘sushis’ (if people like it, why not?), to transmit our Jewish values which are Divine and Eternal!"

Michel, a 26-year-old student, is typical of the young Cariocas touched by Rabbi Goldman’s work. He is part of "a group that goes to the beach, goes out at night," and never used to do anything Jewish. But now, he says, they also "go to Lubavitch" on Friday evenings.

People filter slowly into a sleek, air-conditioned building with mirrored windows located one block from the beach. Although the service begins at 7:00 p.m., the congregants, Carioca-style, take their time to arrive. The rabbis are among the first and the most conspicuous, with their bushy beards and black suits, accompanied by wives in wigs and ankle-length dresses. The couples look like they should be strolling the streets of an Eastern European shtetl, not the cidade maravilhosa ("the marvelous city," as Rio is nicknamed). By contrast, most of the under-30, Carioca set, which makes up about one third of the congregation, is not Orthodox. Freshly-showered young men in jeans and Polo shirts stand outside, chatting to young women with blow-dried hair and made-up faces, who come dressed in an assortment of skirts, stretch pants, tube tops and body suits.

Ricardo, a business student, makes the trip to services from his home in Barra de Tijuca, a tiny suburb about 20 minutes south of the synagogue. Like many of the young people who attend services, he came because his friends did, not for religion. "It wasn’t because of a spiritual search; I wasn’t feeling a lack of prayer. I came because they built this synagogue and I was curious to see what it was. Most of my friends were coming and since I wasn’t doing anything during this time there was no reason for me not to go."

"The truth," says Rabbi Rabinovich, one of the young rabbis serving the congregation, "is that many young people begin coming for the social reception at the end of the ceremony and then start thinking, ‘puxa, what if I came an hour earlier to see what happens in the prayer?’…And the person comes and enjoys the service and participates another time."

After they enter the building and pick up a Portuguese-Hebrew prayer book, the men and women go their separate ways. Halacha (Jewish law) forbids physical contact between the sexes. The young men grab a kippah and join the 200 or so other men downstairs, while the women head upstairs to the balcony.

Despite the separation, sexual energy lingers throughout the service. The young men crane their necks upwards, scanning the balcony for pretty girls. From above, the women check out the men below.

Rabbi Goldman’s seat remains empty in a row of plush red seats facing the congregation. From there two other rabbis lead the congregation in the Shabbat melodies. Even after the ceremony is well underway, the rabbis continue to welcome the continual flow of latecomers with the same good humor. And they don’t seem to mind the unorthodox dress or casual manner of the young people wandering in. Instead, they greet each one as he or she arrives with an enthusiastic "Shabbat Shalom."

The Lubavitch attitude is that breaking halacha by dressing immodestly or not keeping kosher is a pardonable transgression—good intentions are what matter. This stems from the Chassidic belief in ahavat yisrael ("love of Israel"). Fellow Jews should be loved unconditionally—regardless of how religious they are. "We are interested that all Jews are able to come to the synagogue, independent of whether they are observant," says Rabbi Rabinovich. "Nobody forces them to put on a skull cap or a beard…they feel comfortable coming to us."

And apparently they do. Midway through the service, 400 people have filled the synagogue beyond capacity. Chairs have run out and those who arrive late are forced to stand in the back. Rabbi Goldman ambles in, grasps the hands of various young people in greeting, then begins to clap his hands to the music. Carla, an architecture student dressed in stretch pants and a hot top for post-services partying, likes the Lubavitch approach: "They are religious; they are Orthodox. But they are not those Orthodox that do not accept…To the contrary, they call out to those who are not like them."

Joanna, a law student who wears her hair in spiral curls, enjoys listening to the ancient melodies and feeling the weight of tradition. "I think, caramba, prayer is super good for you…I leave there very happy," says Joanna. But the reason the Lubavitch approach works for her is that it compliments her social life. "Today, in the ‘Beit Lubavitch’ you meet up with everybody. This is what makes it cool…I always end up going out afterward with the people who are there."

By 9:30, when the service concludes and the Kiddush over the wine gets underway, the crowd has already begun to thin out. Ricardo, the business student, is off to meet some friends for beers. At an English pub not far from the "Beit Lubavitch," he will listen to a rock group and hit on girls. Between gulps of Heineken and bites of fried manioc, he will play darts and chat past three in the morning. He has nothing to do the next day except go to the beach.

Rabbi Goldman believes the Lubavitch mission is having a great impact on Ricardo’s peers: "Hundreds and hundreds of women are lighting the Shabbat candles, going to mikveh; and hundreds of men are putting on tefelim [sic] every day!…many marriages have been celebrated." But for most of the young Cariocas, Lubavitch is a diversion from a life immersed in the individualistic and often superficial culture of Rio de Janeiro. A minority will probe deeper into Judaism and attend the classes on religious education held during the week. Some will even find a Jewish mate through Lubavitch. And a few will themselves become Lubavitchers.

But most are simply like Simone, a student who likes to spend her free time at the movies or drinking beer at a beachfront bar. She has added Friday night services at the "Beit Lubavitch" to her schedule because it has given her an entry into Jewish community. She doesn’t think about the coming of the Messiah and certainly does not see herself becoming Orthodox. For Simone, the value of the "Beit Lubavitch" is simply that "sometimes listening to the rabbi, listening to what he is saying, singing the few songs that I remember, I remember a little…who I am and what is tradition."

First published in New Voices