In Hard-Hit Brazil, Jews Lead Dozens Of COVID-19 Aid Initiatives


Brazil, the largest country in South America and the sixth most populous country in the world, has been hit so hard by the coronavirus pandemic that its health ministry removed months of morbidity and mortality data from public view on Saturday.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who scoffed at implementing health regulations to stem the tide of what he called “just a little flu,” wrote on Twitter that the data was removed because “the cumulative data… does not reflect the situation the country is in.”

Critics say the removal of the data is just a failed attempt to hide the true extent of the high price Brazilians have paid for Bolsonaro’s refusal to take the pandemic seriously. Bolsonaro has actively fought against implementing health regulations such as social distancing and quarantine, even saying on a television interview: “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life. You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”

The latest confirmed data that the government published stated that the South American country had 676,494 confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest number of cases in the world outside the United States, and a death toll of 36,044, surpassing Italy’s death rate. And of course, those are only the official numbers, with the actual number of cases and deaths believed to be far higher.

According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) report, Brazilian Jews are behind dozens of initiatives to assist Brazilians in financial distress due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Posternak family, who live in Boa Viagem, a suburb of the city of Recife, the fourth largest city in Brazil and the capital and largest city of its northeastern region, has converted their sweets and pastries store into a soup kitchen.

The store’s employees are cooking and packing the food and Mrs. Posternak recruited her Jewish friends to help out. They are now cooking about 400 meals every week at their converted store and distributing them to Recife’s low-income neighborhoods, called favelas.

Some homes in the dirty and crime-ridden favelas have no running water and improvised tangles of electrical wires that pose a danger to the residents. The overcrowded conditions make it impossible for the residents to implement conditions necessary to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Public hospitals are collapsing under the burden as countless Brazilians fall ill with COVID-19.

“The conditions I saw are terrible,” Andrea Engelsberg, a volunteer working with the Posternaks, told JTA. “Sewers are backed up, sanitary supplies are missing and in the favelas, families are living in such crowded conditions that social distancing is not practically possible.”

In other cities in Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre, local branches of the Brazilian Jewish community central organization, the Brazilian Israelite Confederation (CONIB), have initiated tzedaka campaigns to collect money and food for the needy as well as protective medical equipment for medical staff.

Rabbi Gilberto Ventura, the rabbi of the Sinagoga Sem Fronteiras shul, and his wife Jacqueline, are leading an initiative to distribute food packages in Sao Paulo, the most populous city in Brazil.

“There has been an impressive mobilization by Brazilian Jews during this time,” Rabbi Ventura told JTA. “Brazilian Jews are punching way above their weight in their response to this tragedy.” Rabbi Ventura’s food distribution initiative is funded by the Sao Paulo Jewish philanthropists William Jedwab and Silvia Kaminsky.

Gilson Garcia, a social welfare activist from Sao Paulo, said that the lockdown imposed on many Brazilian states by their governors (contrary to Bolsonaro’s orders) has propelled countless working-class families into poverty.

“It’s a knock-on effect: The lockdown eliminated the sole source of income for hundreds of thousands of families where the breadwinners work as chauffeurs and housemaids for richer households without or with very little social benefits,” Garcia said. “COVID-19 pushed many of those working-class families into the extreme poverty category.”

“There are government food distribution points, but people queue up there without maintaining social distancing, coughing on one another,” he added. “Delivering food to people’s homes reduces this exposure.”

In contrast to the Jewish communities in most countries around the world, where the coronavirus has disproportionally affected the Jewish community, there have been minimal infections in the Jewish community in Brazil, estimated to number about 120,000 members, and only a handful of deaths from the virus.

Most of the Jews in Brazil are Ashkenazi, the children and grandchildren of Jews who fled Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. Most of them are well-educated, affluent and many live in gated communities or in large well-appointed apartments in Brazil’s largest cities.

However, in recent years, there has been an increasing amount of benei anusim who have been returning to Judaism – Jews with Sephardic roots descended from the Anusim of the Portuguese Inquisition. Rabbi Venturo is active in this community, which has many working-class members from blue-collar neighborhoods who are suffering far worse than the Ashkenazi community from financial setbacks due to the pandemic.

“None of our members are in very bad conditions, but there are a few families in the community that are having a tough time, locked down with six people in a two-room apartment with one bathroom,” Gershom Manoel de Lima, president of the Ohel Avraham congregation in Recife, told JTA.

(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)