Brazil has been much in the news lately, with the inauguration of president Jair Bolsonaro and the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Bolsonaro’s right-wing views have stirred controversy worldwide. Even his unabashedly pro-Israel policy — declaring that he will move the Brazilian embassy to Yerushalayim — after years of Brazilian leaders being overtly hostile to Israel has not won over a large part of the Jewish community, who fear he will initiate an authoritarian regime that will not be good for anybody, including the Jews.
But the news from Brazil on Tuesday was something that Jews across the political spectrum should welcome: A new law that allows Jewish and non-Jewish students to miss exams and classes for religious reasons.
Bolsonaro signed the law this week, set to go into effect in 60 days. It means that Jewish students will have the law on their side when they request permission to be excused for exams held on Shabbos, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Chagim.
Jewish students have sometimes been penalized for their observance. In 2016, approximately 76,000 shomer Shabbos applicants to Brazil’s annual national high school exam were confined to classrooms between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Shabbos in order to start the test after sunset without the possibility of cheating, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported.
“It’s a legitimate demand from the part of the Brazilian population that keeps the Sabbath,” Fernando Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, told JTA. “It is yet another important victory for the Jewish community and all those involved in this struggle, including the Adventists.”
To be sure, it is not a free pass for anyone. Absences must be requested in advance. Missed exams and classes must be made up at a later time or replaced by written assignments or research activities. But this policy will allow religious students to pursue their studies without having to compromise their religious practice.
The news comes at a time when rising anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe has generated great anguish and alarm in the Jewish community. Reports of violent attacks on Jews make their way into the media with greater and greater frequency from the major cities of the most supposedly civilized Western countries, cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and New York. Only recently, the worst anti-Semitic attack in American history was perpetrated in the city of Pittsburgh, with 11 people killed and 7 people wounded.
So it is indeed encouraging that the Jewish community in Brazil — 120,000 Jews, comprising a mere 0.06 percent of the total population — should receive such recognition and respect.
Of course, the value of religious freedom depends a great deal on what you do with it. The new Brazilian law facilitates Shabbos observance, but it says nothing — nor should it — about promoting Judaism. That remains the responsibility of the Jewish community itself.
Brazilian Jewry, like Jewish populations in other countries, presents a mixed picture. For example, as of 2017, Rio de Janeiro’s Jewish population stood at 22,000, with 24 active synagogues, all but two of which were identified as Orthodox. The largest synagogues in Rio and Sao Paulo are Conservative and Reform. Rio had five Jewish schools: two religious (TTH Bar Ilan and Cheder Beit Menachem) and three secular (A. Liessin, Eliezer Steinbarg-Max Nordau and ORT), according to The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.
A statistical breakdown of the proportion of Jewish students in secular versus religious schools across Brazil was not available at the time of this writing.
Since the 1980s, when Brazil’s synagogues were languishing, and it was often hard to find a minyan, there has been a revival. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, in particular, has contributed to that.
For those who are already enrolled in Jewish schools (assuming that they, too, respect religious freedom), the law may have no impact. But for those who attend secular institutions, the difference it makes could be profound.
Many who wish to observe Shabbos and the Chagim, but have been torn between observance and academic and social pressures, will now have their dilemma eased. They will not be faced with a choice between what they perceive as academic and career success versus their Jewish identity.
Not that the challenges of being Jewish in galus will go away. Jews will still have to make difficult choices, both in school and at work. The new law will not do this for them; nor will many in their own communities back them if they are seeking out an authentic Jewish life.
But there are addresses for them to go to, and fellow Jews willing to offer their help. If only they will seek it.