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Jews Say Bye-Bye Brazil as Economy and Crime Bite

Fruit smoothie and juice bars come a dime a dozen in Tel Aviv. But this is probably the only one that sells fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice mixed with pineapple – a Brazilian classic. It is definitely the only such establishment that bakes its own Brazilian cheese rolls, otherwise known as pao de queijo, and serves them piping hot from a small toaster oven.

Felipe Ponce Mendes opened this little slice of Rio di Janeiro in south Tel Aviv just a few months ago, but word has spread. “I have Brazilians making the trip here from as far as Beersheba and Ashdod, and that’s just to have a sip of sugarcane juice,” he said.

To be sure, Israel doesn’t have a huge population of Brazilian expats – their number estimated at about 12,000. But over the past year and a half, immigration from the land of samba has taken off, at least in percentage terms, and some of the more veteran Brazilians in the country, Ponce Mendes among them, are identifying opportunity in this new immigration wave.  

On average, somewhere between 200 and 250 Brazilian Jews move to Israel every year. This year, the number could reach 500, according to Gladis Berezowski, the director of immigrant absorption at Beit Brasil, a recently established non-profit that helps new arrivals from South America’s largest country acclimate in Israel.  “That would be an all-time high,” she said. 

But as Michel Abadi, the executive director of Beit Brasil noted, it is a very different demographic of Brazilians relocating to Israel in recent years. “In the 1960s and 1970s, the aliyah was very idealistically motivated,” he says. “Most of those who came back then were graduates of Zionist youth movements. In the past 10 years or so, we’re seeing many more interfaith couples and individuals who may have one Jewish grandparent and are therefore eligible for aliyah – in other words, people who don’t have as close a connection to Judaism or Israel as they did in the past.” 

Ponce Mendes is a case in point. His mother is Jewish, but his father is not. When his parents split up, his mother brought him and his brother to Israel. She has since left the country for the United States, and he, too, dreams of joining her there one day. “Maybe in two years, if things work out, I’ll open a Brazilian juice bar in New York,” he says.

According to Shay Felber, a senior executive at the Jewish Agency, two key factors explain the recent jump in immigration from Brazil: the bad local economy and mounting concerns about personal safety. “The cost-of-living there has gone up tremendously, and at the same time, there’s a lot more crime,” he noted.  A recent immigration fair organized by the Jewish Agency in Sao Paolo, he says, attracted 500 participants, and this year, for the first time, a large group of Jewish high school seniors in Brazil asked to take the psychometric exams required of applicants to Israeli universities. “We had 120 students take the exam, which was given to them in Portuguese,” Felber reported. “This is proof to me that many Brazilian Jews no longer see a future for themselves in the country.”

According to Jewish Agency figures, 228 immigrants from Brazil arrived in Israel between January and July – an increase of 30 percent compared with the same period last year.  In 2014, a total of 279 Brazilians immigrated to Israel – an increase of 36 percent over the previous year. Felber said that the Jewish Agency has opened another 450 files for prospective immigrants from Brazil.

Relative to countries like France and Ukraine, which have provided many thousands of immigrants to Israel in recent years, the absolute figures from Brazil are not remarkable. But considering that Brazil has a much smaller Jewish population to begin with – estimated at somewhere between 100,000 and 120,000 – neither are they insignificant.

If anti-Semitism has been a key factor in the number of Jews fleeing France for Israel’s shores in recently, that is hardly the case in Brazil, where Jews have rarely felt persecuted because they were Jewish. They have felt threatened, however, by rising crime rates, which may affect Jews disproportionately because of their relatively high profile among Brazil’s affluent class.

Abadi, who served as a senior executive in the United Israel Appeal when he lived in Sao Paulo, says the Brazilian community has been particularly shaken up by the recent homicide of a Jewish doctor who was killed when an armed assailant tried to steal his bicycle as he set out for a morning ride in the park. 

It is not easy for Brazilian immigrants to leave behind their fears when they arrive in Israel, noted Berezowsky. “Recently I met with a group of immigrants in Ra’anana,” she recounted, “and this woman was sitting there hugging her bag to her chest for dear life. I told her, ‘You can put it down next to you. Nobody’s going to take it from you here.’ But it was very difficult for her.”

Adriana Caspari moved to Israel in February with her husband and 15-month-old son. She is originally from Sao Paolo, and her husband is from Rio de Janeiro.  They currently live in an absorption center in the coastal city of Ashkelon, where they are learning Hebrew. “We thought our baby would have a better future here,” she responded when asked what prompted the move. 

Mabel and Eduardo Svecnik came with their 19-year-old son at the beginning of the year as well. They are now living in an absorption center in Kiryat Yam, north of Haifa. “We needed a change, my son wanted to join the army, and we felt that in Israel we could get help to start a new life,” she said. “By now we can say that we made the right choice. There is a better health system here and a better education system.” 

In years past, noted Abadi, Brazilians moving to Israel were thought to have been sacrificing their quality of life. “Israel was considered a less advanced country then, and those who immigrated were pitied in a way,” he said. “But that’s no longer the case. Israel has modernized a lot since those days, while Brazil has regressed.”

Alan Koslowski first immigrated to Israel in 2004 but felt compelled to return to Brazil a year later in order to care for an ailing mother. He returned to Israel in February 2014, and although the adjustment hasn’t been easy, he now has a full-time job and an apartment in Tel Aviv. But for him, the biggest perk of all of living in Israeli is being able to stroll the streets without looking behind to see if he’s being stalked. “To be able to hold my wallet and my cellphone in my hand while walking the street in the middle of the night, that to me is unbelievable, really unbelievable,” he said. “It is one big source of stress I no longer have to deal with.”

Malka Wertzner concurred. Just the other night, she recounted, she returned to her apartment in Jerusalem at 2 in the morning on her own after attending a wedding near Tel Aviv. “In Brazil, I could never have done that,” she says. 

Wertzner, who moved to Israel in January, began thinking of immigrating back in 2007 when she spent a year in the country on an exchange program run by Masa. “I went back to Brazil after the program was over, and it was just easier to stay there,” she recounted. “My family was there, I spoke the language, I had a job there. So it took quite a while for me to come back.” 

She said she’s very glad she did though. 

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