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Jewry battens the hatches as Brazilian president gets the virus

  • JTABrazilPresident
(JTA) The bombshell news on Tuesday was ironic for some. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, one of the world leaders who has most staunchly downplayed the potential of the coronavirus pandemic, had contracted the virus.
by MARCUS M GILBAN | Jul 09, 2020

In spite of his ardent support of Israel, Bolsonaro’s tempered rhetoric on the virus and controversial moves to cope with the pandemic – including fiercely criticising stay-at-home measures implemented by Rio de Janeiro and other state governments, and saying that a weakened economy could kill more than the virus – have raised eyebrows even among his most passionate conservative Jewish supporters.

As of June, the country of 215 million people that is home to about 120 000 Jews had the second-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world behind the United States: nearly 1.6 million, including about 65 000 deaths.

In March, the Rio Jewish federation established its own crisis committee to advise the state’s 30 000 Jews. Along with being a state, Rio is Brazil’s second largest city and second largest Jewish community behind São Paulo. It’s home to some of the nation’s most famous landmarks, such as the Christ Redeemer statue and the Sugarloaf Mountain, and boasts some of the country’s most storied Jewish institutions, such as the Great Israelite Temple and Brazil’s largest Jewish school, the 1 400-student Liessin.

“In spite of government guidelines allowing religious temples to reopen, we have told all synagogues to wait longer, and our request has been met,” the federation’s president, Arnon Velmovitsky, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The city’s largest synagogue, the 1 000-family Associação Religiosa Israelita, has been garnering more than 500 people on its regular Friday evening livestreamed religious services. It’s so popular that the president of the Reform temple, which was founded in 1942 by German Jewish families, says it will keep streaming services online after the pandemic.

Orthodox synagogues in the city have been holding pre-Shabbat and Havdalah celebrations. Temples from all streams offer an array of live and pre-recorded material, including prayers, lectures and classes. Since the pandemic started, Israeli Independence Day, Lag B’Omer and Shavuot observances were celebrated online.

Brazil is regularly among the top 10 list of countries that send the most immigrants to Israel every year. In 2019, nearly 700 Brazilians moved to Israel – a record that has stayed almost constant for three years in a row. Through May, 280 Brazilians had immigrated to the Jewish state this year, but that pipeline has been nearly shut down.

“Most people are frustrated because they should already be in Israel. We can’t tell anything for sure now, we have no crystal ball. It’s all a big question mark,” said Sprintza Laim, the head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department in Rio.

Still, immigration could increase throughout the year, especially if the COVID-19 situation in Brazil worsens.

Last year, 750 Brazilian families opened aliyah files, meaning they began the process of gathering the personal and religious documents needed for immigration. The 2020 tally is expected to reach up to 1 200, according to the Jewish Agency.

Rio alone currently accounts for about 45%, although it is home to only half the Jewish population of São Paulo.

Danielle Tarnovsky was among the 23 Brazilians who landed in Israel on a flight via Ethiopia in May. She was quarantined in a Tel Aviv hotel for 14 days, as mandated by Israel, from which she spoke to Olim do Brasil, a non-profit that helps her countrymen.

“We had a thousand obstacles, many people would’ve given it up, but I was loyal to my goal,” Tarnovsky said from her new home in Nahariya. “Rio is not doing well in terms of health. We left the virus behind.”

While several private schools in Rio are providing pre-recorded classes, Jewish schools have stood out for providing real-time classes. They’re using e-learning platforms such as Google Meet and Zoom supported by the Google Classroom platform.

“The result is above our expectations,” said Celia Saada, the principal of Liessin, which has three campuses. All the Jewish schools in Brazil run from preschool to high school.

“Junior high and high-school students have responded quickly and positively. From first to fifth grade, it was a gradual thing. Preschool was our biggest challenge.”

TTH Barilan, an Orthodox school, recently posted on Facebook numbers documenting the school’s efforts to keep things running during the first three months of the pandemic. There were nearly half a million emails and files exchanged; almost 7 500 classes on Google Meet that took more than 250 000 minutes; nearly 42 000 views of class videos on social media; and more.

“Our teachers reinvented their teaching practice, families found ways to organise their homes to meet the new reality, and students took a leap of responsibility and autonomy to keep up with the new school dynamics,” said TTH Barilan’s principal, Andre Frank. “The pandemic will pass, but the legacy will remain.”

Israeli folk dance, a passionate national pastime, has probably its biggest diaspora fans in the land of the Samba. The choreographed circle, couple, and line dances are taught in Rio’s Jewish schools, youth movements, synagogues, and private spaces.

COVID-19 has turned this world upside down – especially since holding hands is one of the key principles of Israeli dance. The 50th edition of the Hava Netze Bemachol festival, Rio’s largest Jewish annual event, has been postponed as a result of the virus.

“We now hold regular classes on Zoom. We’ve been recording choreography for our pupils to rehearse at home, and training our instructors during the quarantine,” said Daniel Adesse, the founder of Kineret Institute, an Israeli dance school that gathers about 250 dancers who perform in Brazil and the United States.

The Women’s International Zionist Organization, a group of 1 500 activists from across the country whose headquarters is in Rio, is still holding a wide range of initiatives to raise funds for educational projects.

Lectures, panels, and courses on Jewish values, Israel-related topics, and more are now livestreamed on Zoom, which the activists, known as chaverot – have nicknamed WiZoom. The events constantly reach the Zoom limit of 100 participants. The goal is to plan campaigns to collect funds on the calls, but also to share the tough personal challenges imposed by COVID-19.

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