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Federal republic; largest country in South America. Brazil, which was discovered by Portugal in 1500, was the home of the first organized Jewish community in the New World. Large numbers of Marranos, forced converts who observed their Jewish faith in secret, arrived early in the 16th century. They prospered in commerce and industry, but at the price of denying their Judaism publicly. Only when the Dutch conquered Pernambuco in 1630 were the Marranos able to declare their faith. Their congregations were enlarged by Jews from Holland, the West Indies, and North Africa. So extensive was their trade that Pernambuco came to be known as “the port of the Jews.” This happy interlude ended when the Portuguese recaptured Dutch Brazil in 1654, and expelled the Jews from the country. Most of the Brazilian Jews fled to Holland. Small groups found refuge in Surinam and Curacao in the Dutch West Indies. Twenty-three boarded a ship which bore them to New Amsterdam, where they became the nucleus of the famous Portuguese-Jewish community of New York.

So effective was the Portuguese persecution that for the next 175 years there was no indication of Jewish life in Brazil. After Brazil achieved its independence from Portugal in 1824, however, a small community of Marranos revealed its Judaism in Belem, far from the capital. Later in the century, two other small communities were founded in Brazil. Yet it is only at the turn of the 20th century that the “modern” community may be said to begin. At that time, the Jewish Colonization Association began to encourage European Jews to emigrate to Brazil and settle on farms. The farm colonies were not very successful. Most of their members settled in cities and founded communities there. These communities were enlarged by new immigrants, especially after the U.S. began to restrict its own immigration in 1924. Because of the opportunities it offered to newcomers, Brazil became the home of the second largest Jewish community in Latin America. Totaling 96,500 in 2007, it is second only to Argentina. Between 1957 and 1959, Brazil received some 3,000 immigrants from Egypt and 700 from Hungary.

The Brazilian Jewish community is a prosperous one. Most of its members are merchants or manufacturers; the remainder are largely skilled craftsmen. The large majority live in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, but there are Jews in every major city in the country. Since 1951, all sectors of the Jewish community have been represented in the World Jewish Congress by the Confederation of the Jewish Societies of Brazil.

The cultural activities within the community are varied. There are Yiddish newspapers and many Jewish periodicals in Portuguese. The larger communities have Jewish school systems and elaborate community organizations. Zionist feeling has run high, especially since the creation of the State of Israel. Educators from Israel play a large part in running the Jewish schools in Rio and Sao Paulo, although non-Zionists have their own schools. In addition, teachers from most of the Jewish schools are regularly sent to Israel for training. In 1954, an Israel-Brazilian Cultural Institute was inaugurated under the chairmanship of Brazil’s foreign minister. It grants scholarships to Brazil’s students who wish to study in Israel, and has set itself the task of popularizing Brazilian literature in Israel and Israel literature in Brazil. Another cultural institution of note is the Jewish-Brazilian Institute of Historical Research, which studies the history of the Jewish community in Brazil.

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