When I initially planned my visit to ARI, Rio's only reform synagogue, I planned to find out what made Brazilian Jews different from American ones. I'm fascinated by how cultures influence one another and how they change each other. But to my surprise (and I'll admit, disappointment), I found that Brazilian Judaism is no different than American Judaism. We are pretty much exactly the same everywhere. But perhaps that's the beauty of it.
I had an inkling when I first walked in to the beautiful building. Like in the temple I used to attend in New York, there were signs for no smoking and no cell phones, glass-encased Jewish crafts and knickknacks for sale, and a large tzedaka box. I came across a memorial wall with names of deceased congregation members, whose names were identical to the kids in my Sunday School classes: Katz, Goldstein, Hirsch, Grossman, Rosenberg. My greatest delight was coming across my uncle's name, which I had never seen or heard duplicated even in the US. It's possible my uncle has long lost Brazilian relatives.
When I asked B, an active volunteer at the temple who agreed to answer my questions, she was very insistent that the Judaism they practiced there was the same passed down from their European parents and grandparents, and that Brazilian culture had little to no influence on the way things worked. Like American synagogues, their temple has youth groups, charities, does volunteer work, and offers activities for congregants. She acknowledged that though the "Latin" way of life differs from the Eastern European way of life, she pointed out that Carioca Jews include people of German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, North African, and Egyptian descent, who all come together to carry on their shared rituals.
But she did concede a few things. She told me she'd once tried a Jewish version of vatapa in Belem, when I asked if there were any Brazilian cultural influences in Jewish culture. She mentioned the culture of infidelity and the subsequent high number of divorces in the Rio Jewish community, which she implied could be a Brazilian influence. When I told her about the uber PC culture and separation of church and state law in the US, where Christmas creches can cause lawsuits and where it's safest to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," she looked surprised. In Brazil, she said, when someone tells her "Feliz Natal," she tells them the same and goes on with her day. With a tiny population in a sea of Catholics, they have learned to adapt.
Later, she went on to tell me about the struggles they faced, the same kind you'd hear in any American temple: raising funds to add to the building (her pet project is trying to build a mikvah), the tension with the Orthodox Jews (who have a habit of telling the reform Jews that they're not really Jews and would be better off Catholics), and the competition with other temples to attract congregants.
I left the temple feeling a little disappointed, since I was hoping to find some evidence of cultural melding (feel free to leave any examples you can think of in the comments, by the way). But I also was impressed by how the Jews of Rio have managed to maintain their religion and way of life just as it was in the "old country," just as we have in the US and the rest of the diaspora around the world.