Jewish Community of
Panoramic view of "Rua do Bom Jesus"
(formerly the Jewish street) in Recife
Courtesy: Valeria Bondi Krzywanowski
Former Jewish street in Recife
Courtesy: Valeria Bondi Krzywanowski
Early History / Jewish Life in Recife in the Twentieth Century
/ Community Institutions
/ The Kahal Tzur Israel (“Rock of
Israel”) Synagogue /
Jews arrived in Recife after the year 1500, when the
Portuguese landed at what is now Brazil. Recife, capital of the State of
Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, became a prosperous center for sugar
production in the 16th and 17th centuries. Part of
Recife's population consisted of New Christians (Jewish converts to
At the end of the 16th century, the
Inquisition - which reached Brazil after Portugal was united with Spain -
began affecting the lives of those Crypto Jews who had continued to live
according to Jewish principles in Recife. Thus the New Christian Diego
Fernandez, the greatest expert in sugar plantations, was accused by the
Inquisition of being a "judaizer." The Inquisition dispatched an official
inspector (visitator) for the purpose of seizing and confiscating the
suspects' possessions, and an inquisitional commission was established in
1593 in Olinda, the port of Recife. New Christians were tried and arrested;
some were taken to Lisbon and handed over to the inquisitional tribunal.
After the inspector had left, surveillance of New Christians was continued
by the bishop of Brazil, with the assistance of the local clergy and
It was not until 1630, when the Dutch occupied
Pernambuco, that the Crypto Jews of Recife began to experience some
religious freedom. Pernambuco remained under Dutch rule for 24 years,
until 1654. This was an important period in Jewish history in South
America, as Brazil under Dutch rule was the only region during colonial
times where Jews were allowed to practice their religion openly and
establish an organized community. Its members were mainly Jews from
Holland and Crypto Jews who had already been in Pernambuco under
Most Jews of Recife during this period were of Sephardic
origin. The society they came to live in was similar to the society they
came from in terms of style and language.
The Jews of Recife at this time were active as
financiers, brokers, sugar exporters and suppliers of African slaves. Their
congregation, Tzur Israel,
maintained a synagogue, the religious schools Talmud Torah and Etz
Chayim, and a cemetery.
In 1645, the Portuguese, joined by Brazilian
sympathizers, started a guerilla war that led to the defeat of the Dutch and
the reconquest of northeastern Brazil. It remained under Portuguese rule
until the independence of Brazil in 1822. After 1654, the Jewish community
disintegrated and those who had openly professed their Judaism now fell
victim to the Inquisition. Most of the Recife Jews left Brazil together with
the Dutch. These emigrants developed the sugar industry of the Dutch
Antilles. After many difficulties, twenty-three of these emigrants arrived
in New Amsterdam, where they founded the first Jewish community of what
later became the town of New York.
As of the middle of the 18th century, the
Portuguese enabled the New Christians to mingle with the rest of the
population, until their traces disappeared as they became completely
Life in Recife in the Twentieth Century
Between 1822 and World War II, Jews from Eastern Europe,
Germany, as well as from a number of Arab countries, immigrated to Brazil.
In this period, the Jewish community of Brazil became the second in size in
South America. During World War II, the number of Jewish immigrants to
Brazil fell drastically, to rise again as of 1946.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a new Jewish
community in Recife was founded by immigrants from Eastern Europe (mainly
from Poland, Ukraine, Bessarabia and Lithuania). It is generally assumed
that in 1918 the first community institutions were established.
Jewish immigrants from Poland at the port of
arrival in Brazil, 1926.
Courtesy: Segio Zalis, Brazil
Jacob Hazan (1899-1992), center, one of Hashomer
Hatzair leaders, (with wife Berta on his left), and members of the movement,
Courtesy: Sarah Gandelman, Kibbutz Gat, Israel
The immigrants arrived with the knowledge that their
coming to Brazil was not a temporary situation. This did not weaken their
Jewish identity, however. There was a continuation of keeping the Jewish
tradition and values. One of the ways in which this was expressed was the
commitment of the youth to Zionist movements.
The lifestyle of the immigrants after World War II became
a blend of the traditional lifestyle the new comers brought with them and
that of the Jews of Pernambuco. In the 1950's, the teaching of the Jewish
traditions and culture were transferred from the familiar environment to the
schools and youth movements.
The 1970's saw stagnation in Jewish life dynamics
followed by a revival of community activities in the 1980's. In the 1990's,
various new institutions were established, and a new register of the Jews
living in Recife was started.
The first Jewish school in Recife was founded around 1918
and its name was Idiche Schul. It continued under various names:
Colegio Hebreu Idish Brasileiro, Colegio Ginasio Israelita de Pernambuco.
Since 1967, it has been known as Colegio Israelita Moises Chvarts.
The Jewish organizations active within the framework of
the Jewish community of Recife today include the women organizations
WIZO, Na'amat Pioneiras and Relief and the youth
organizations Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz Hatzair and Dror
Centro Israelita de
In the first years of the existence of the Jewish community
of Recife, meetings took place in synagogues, schools and social or sport
clubs. In 1950, the Clube Hebraico was founded. It was later
dissolved and reestablished as the Centro Cultural Israelita de
Pernambuco, which in its turn became - in the 1960's - the Centro
Israelita de Pernambuco, by which name it is known today.
Centro Israelita de Pernambuco
R. Jose Holanda, 792
The first synagogue
in South America functioned in Recife during the 17th century. Initially,
religious services were conducted at the homes of leaders of the Jewish
community, who were usually the people with relatively thorough knowledge of
Judaism and the economically well off.
Later, when synagogues were founded, they were often
named after these leaders and the places they came from, like Shil
Scholem Ocintzer, founded in 1906. In 1926, the name of this synagogue
changed into Synagoga Israelita da Boa Vista and since 1987, it has
been known as Sinagoga Israelita de Recife.
Other synagogues in Recife:
Sinagoga Sukuron, founded in 1916
Shil Chaim Leib, 1940-1965, also used as Talmud
Sinagoga dos Sefaradim, active between 1930 and 1940
(it ceased its activity when the Sephardi Jews dispersed to other places
in Brazil, died or married to non-Sepharadim)
Centro Judaico de Beneficencia Beit Chabad has served
the orthodox community since 1987.
One way in which the first generations of the immigrants
that founded the Jewish community of Recife at the beginning of the
twentieth century succeeded in preserving their cultural identity was
through the performing arts. The Grupo de Arte Dramatica was founded
in 1930 and fulfilled a role of entertainment for the new Yiddish speaking
immigrants. Yiddish was the language of much of the Jewish literature,
poetry, novels, stories, theater and music. The second generation translated
or transliterated the plays into Portuguese.
In 1958, the Teatro de Estudantes Israelita de Pernambuco
was established. This group worked together with local amateur and
professional theater groups of Recife. As their success grew and attracted
the attention of the press, the themes of the plays lost much of their
The youth of Recife initiated a number of other cultural
organizations in the 1920s, like Grupo da Juventude Israelita Max
Nordau (1925), reflecting the community's concern about the Jewish
community life, Organizacao Vita Kempner (1940) and the
Sociedade israelita Chaim Jitlovsky. The members of the latter two
groups were exponents of the ideas of Judaism according to the Haskala
The first Jewish cemetery in Recife, Cemiterio Israelita
do Barro, was inaugurated in June 1926. Prior to that, the Jews of
Recife were buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Their remains were later
transferred to the Jewish cemetery.
Joao Sedycias - Article on the Sephardim of Brazil
Kaufman, Tania Neumann. A Presenca Judaica em Pernambuco:
Passos Perdidos, Historia Recuperada. Ph.D. thesis. Recife: Universidade
Federal de Pernambuco, 1998.