The Jewish Community of Recife

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 Christianity).

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 Jesuits.

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 Portuguese rule.

The former Jewish street

The former Jewish street, Recife. Courtesy of Valeria Bondi Krzywanowski

The former Jewish street, Recife. Courtesy of Valeria Bondi Krzywanowski

Jacob Hazan (1899-1992), center, one of Hashomer Hatzair leaders, (with wife Berta on his left), and members of the movement, Recife 1954. Courtesy: Sarah Gandelman, Kibbutz Gat, Israel

Jacob Hazan (1899-1992), center, one of Hashomer Hatzair leaders,
(with wife Berta on his left), and members of the movement, Recife 1954.
Courtesy: Sarah Gandelman, Kibbutz Gat, Israel

Jewish immigrants from Poland at the port of arrival in Brazil, 1926. Courtesy: Segio Zalis, Brazil

Jewish immigrants from Poland at the port of arrival in Brazil, 1926.
Courtesy: Segio Zalis, Brazil

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 assimilated.

Jewish 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.

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.

Jewish Organizations
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 Habonim.

Centro Israelita de Pernambuco
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
Recife, Pernambuco
CEP 50.710-140
Fax: 81-445-1185/227-0418

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 Tora
  • 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.

The Arts
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 Jewish character.

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 (Enlightenment) movement.

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.