(JTA) — At the world’s only summer camp for descendants of forcibly converted Jews, young Brazilians had numerous first-time experiences, including seemingly mundane activities like studying the Bible in a group or singing at synagogue. But they were among the most memorable moments from Yeshiva Camp.
There are multiple layers to the mission of bnei anusim — descendants of Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the 15th-century Inquisition campaign of persecution against Jews in Spain, Portugal and their colonies.
“Connecting these youngsters with Judaism is only the beginning,” said Gilberto Ventura, the charismatic rabbi who established, with his wife Jaqueline, Yeshiva Camp as part of their Synagogue Without Borders congregation and outreach project. “What follows is connecting bnei anusim to the rest of Brazilian Jewry and society.”
Yeshiva Camp has already had dozens of participants ages 11 or 25 about a year after its creation. They stay with the Venturas at their spacious synagogue in Sao Paulo, which the couple transform into a youth camp for each new group.
Camps are supposed to go on for two weeks. But true to Brazilian society’s relative fluidity regarding the concept of time, they tend to stretch. The last camp, which ended last month, went on for 40 days, “and really tested our ability to the maximum,” said Ventura, who runs the camp with his wife on a shoestring budget.
Most of the activities take place inside the synagogue, a three-story apartment with 10 rooms, two kitchens and at least 5,500 square meters of floor space. Located in Jardim Paulistano, one of Sao Paulo’s most expensive neighborhoods, the Venturas can afford renting it thanks to donations.
On some days, the participants barely leave the synagogue, Ventura said.
“These kids, they have a huge thirst for knowledge,” the 45-year-old rabbi added. “They come from places without a synagogue. Many of them have no framework.”
For many other Brazilian Jewish youths “Judaism classes are something that comes before the fun stuff at summer camp,” Ventura said. “With the bnei anusim, studying is the main course.”
Excursions to Sao Paulo’s museums, Krav Maga lessons and beach time are some of the less spiritual activities at Yeshiva Camp.
The camp also features a meeting with Nanette Koning, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor who was friends with the famed diarist Anne Frank.