Rabbi Yisroel Bukiet looks warily at the dining area meant to seat 50 to 100 people and shakes his head.

“We’ll serve them in shifts,” he says of the 600 Israelis coming to Chabad-Lubavitch of Salvador in the Brazilian state of Bahia later this month. They’ll be flocking to northeastern Brazil to participate in what the Guinness Book of Records calls “the biggest street party on the planet.”

In 1967, a member of Salvador’s Jewish community volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Force during the Six Day War. When he returned home to Brazil, he invited his army buddies to visit him for the annual festival. Over the years, the trickle of young Israelis escalated into what Bukiet now calls “the annual Israeli Army invasion of Bahia.”

A native Israeli, Bukiet and his wife Rivky arrived in Salvador in 2006 with a mission: to establish a center for Jewish education, culture and prayer in a dwindling community that had no rabbi. Their arrival was greeted with enthusiasm.

“When we applied for permission to create the Chabad House, we were greeted like foreign dignitaries,” says Rivky Bukiet. “We have experienced zero anti-Semitism here.”

Although the Jewish population of Salvador is less than 700, thousands of Jewish tourists a year, mostly from Israel, the United States, Australia, France and Argentina, visit the beachside city, invariably showing up at the Chabad House for a kosher meal and services.

According to Yisroel Bukiet, though, the interest among local Jews has been equally strong.

“People come every week wanting to learn about Judaism,” he says. “They are curious about their ancestry.”

The tropical state of Bahia was once the center of Brazil’s Jewish settlement. (Photo: Embratur)
The tropical state of Bahia was once the center of Brazil’s Jewish settlement. (Photo: Embratur)

Centuries-Old Roots

As early as 1500, Jews arrived in Brazil, settling in Salvador and Recife, to escape the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain. Joined by the descendants of European Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, they are credited with pioneering Brazil’s sugar cane and tobacco industries, along with establishing the first Jewish communities in the Americas.

But when the Inquisition came to Brazil, many fled to New York and Philadelphia. The majority of those who remained in Bahia eventually succumbed to the ravages of intermarriage and assimilation.

“When I was growing up in Salvador, we didn’t have a rabbi. We only had a schochet, a kosher slaughterer, who would prepare our children for Bar Mitzvah,” says Joseph Kertzman, whose father came to Salvador from the Ukraine in 1923. “Originally, 20 Sephardic families founded the Society Israelite de Bahia, our Jewish Community Center, but we had no real synagogue. When we wanted our children to learn about their heritage and marry other Jews, we sent them to S. Paulo.”

Case in point, Kertzman’s wife Dina was born in Rio de Janeiro.

Without the leadership of a rabbi and fearing intermarriage, a full 70 percent of Salvador’s Jews fled to S. Paulo. Ten percent went to Rio and Porto Allegre. The numbers don’t scare Kertzman. In Portuguese-accented English, Kertzman confides, “Jacques Wagner, the Governor of Bahia, is a Jew.”

In less than three years, the Chabad House has outgrown the attractive, three-story building it now occupies at 377 Rua Marques de Cravelas.

“I’m looking for a larger site,” says Bukiet.

With 600 Israelis showing up for Shabbat dinner, he’s hoping to find one soon.

Stacia Friedman is a faculty member in the Journalism Department of Temple University.