Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Brazil announced last week that they were strengthening their focus on a crucial aspect of their outreach: Getting adolescents and young adults aged 10 to 25 more involved in Jewish life.

They made the resolution at the conclusion of the country's second-ever Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis, held at the Grand Hyatt hotel in S. Paulo. The last such gathering occurred 20 years ago.

In that time, Jewish activities in the Portuguese-speaking nation have grown exponentially; today, more than 120 emissaries reach an estimated 20 percent of Brazil's 150,000 Jews, according to Rabbi Shabsi Alpern, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in S. Paulo.

But the promising statistics point to another reality: More must always be done.

"We have a big responsibility," said Rabbi Mendel Begun, the director of the Escola Gani girls' elementary school in S. Paulo. "We have a lot of work to do to get the involvement of more segments of the community."

The 88 delegates to the convention spent their time attending workshops, learning sessions and team-building exercises. Among the items on their agenda was a presentation by Alberto Milkewitz, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of S. Paulo, who spoke about research into community members' affinity for Jewish involvement.

"Brazil is very interesting," said Begun, a second-generation emissary whose father, Rabbi Tzvi Aryeh Begun, was one of the first emissaries to the country and now directs Chabad-Lubavitch education initiatives in Brazil. "The older generation are Holocaust survivors, and their children only grew up with what their parents did in the house. They see the Chabad House as 'out of style.'

"Their children, on the other hand, want to go to Jewish camps, and attend programs at the synagogue," he continued. "I have many people who once they see their kids going to activities, they feel more comfortable coming along."

Organizers were quick to point out that Chabad centers dot communities all across the South American nation. Emissaries and rabbinical students came from such big cities and smaller towns as Salvador, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and Bethlehem. Seeds were planted in those locales 24 years ago during a push by the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to print the Tanya – the 1798 bedrock work of Chabad Chasidism by the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi – in locations all over the globe.

"We picked very small cities," said Alpern, who rushed to print the holy book that year in 100 cities and a Brazilian outpost in Antarctica in 33 days. "Today, we still have connections with all of these people."

Looking for More

Participants in last week’s Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in Brazil took the opportunity of some downtime to exercise.
Participants in last week’s Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in Brazil took the opportunity of some downtime to exercise.
Chief among the delegates' discussions was how to capitalize off of those connections to stem a tide of assimilation affecting not only the Jewish community of Brazil, but communities all over the world.

According to Federation figures, of the some 65,000 Jewish residents of S. Paulo, only 15,000 attend Yom Kippur services. Of those, about 35 percent go to Chabad.

The attendees' conclusion was uniform: To best reach a stratified community – consisting of children, teenagers, 20-somethings, professionals, retirees and geriatric patients – emissaries need to continue to offer a smorgasbord of activities.

"We discussed a survey that looked at what people expect from a synagogue," said Begun. "The results show that people want to go, but for whatever reason many prefer not to go. Sometimes, for instance, they think they have to dress a certain way."

One of the programs that stood out at the gathering was the Rohr-Jewish Learning Institute classes coordinated in Brazil by Rabbi Avrohom Steinmetz. Between 80 and 100 people, mostly professionals, turn out each week for the sessions.

At the conference, the emissaries also examined notable successes in Rio de Janeiro, where between 500 and 700 people attend Shabbat services at the Chabad House, and Belém, from where Rabbi Disraeli Zagury sent more than 50 post high-school students to yeshivas in America in Israel this year.

"Our focus must always be on the individual," affirmed Begun, pointing to such successes. "People are looking for more outlets in which to be Jewish. We will continue to give them those opportunities."

During a more light-hearted point in the proceedings, Rabbi Natan Stulman, co-director of Chabad-Lubavitch of S. Jose dos Campos, won a raffle for a new Torah scroll on behalf of his 50-family congregation.

"I haven't had a chance to tell them yet," said the rabbi, whose community had two Torah scrolls until they found out both were not kosher. "They're going to be very excited."

At the concluding banquet, surprise guest Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the worldwide educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, greeted attendees and visiting lay leaders. He opened with a joke, of sorts.

"Forgive me for speaking English," said Kotlarsky, who for years has delivered the roll call of emissaries at the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in New York. "But what can I do? I don't know how to speak Portuguese."

Kotlarsky then went on to offer a blessing that their work should only increase.

For his part, Alpern resolved that the organization would not wait another two decades to have their next conference. A committee has already started on the task of planning a similar gathering for the female emissaries serving the country.

"No more waiting 20 years," he said between laughs. "We're going to have this every year."