In Brazil, sports is a great way to break cultural barriers

Brazilian youth Samuel and Ami at Congregation SIRP in Ribeirão Preto

On this coming Tisha B’av, observed on Sunday August 11, I will be thinking about my recent trip to Brazil, and my proposed project promoting interfaith tolerance and respect among youth.

One of the calamities we remember on this fast day is the expulsion of the Jews from Spain following the Inquisition, and the terrible persecution they suffered.

On Tisha B’av, 1492, the expulsion edict of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, known as the “Alhambra decree,” went into effect. The entire Jewish community, some 200,000 people, were expelled from Spain, and  tens of thousands died while trying to reach safety.

Many of the Jews took refuge in Portugal. Eight years later a Portuguese Jewish diplomat, Pedra Alvarez Cabral,  discovered Brazil. When the Inquisition reached Portugal in the 16th century, Jews started settling in Brazil, arriving during the period of the Dutch rule, and setting up the first synagogue in the Americas, the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue.

Having been selected to join the Youth Ambassadors cultural exchange program, sponsored by the State Department and the NGO World Learning, I landed in Brazil in early June with 25 other students from across America.

During most of my visit, I stayed in Franca, a gem of a city in southeast Brazil, and I was privileged to experience what most tourists don’t experience: I celebrated with schoolchildren and families at a Festa Junina, a farm-themed party where kids dressed as farmers danced and played with firecrackers. I visited a coffee plantation, and learned how to taste coffee from an  internationally-certified coffee taster. The most meaningful part of the trip, however, was interacting with Brazilians, learning from their culture, and enjoying the incredible hospitality of my host family.

I was thrilled to see the Jewish community in Brazil. My first experience was at Friday night services at SIRP, a synagogue in Ribeirão Preto, a large metropolitan city which has a small Jewish population of about 120. I walked into a living room of 20 people with an ark at the front, and was immediately welcomed by “shabbat shalom” from the congregants. The Moreh (teacher who acts as the community’s rabbi) led kabbalat shabbat and maariv, and I was surprised that this small community in Brazil sings the same tunes as my synagogue in Silver Spring. I felt a strong sense of unity- even 4,500 miles away from home, I could connect with people I just met through song and prayer.

While most of the Jews in the south arrived there following World War I and II, many of the Jews in north Brazil are descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal to the religious freedom of the Netherlands.

It was inspiring that while their ancestors were forced to either convert to Christianity or flee, the Brazilian Jewish youth today are proud of their Jewish identity. Samuel, a teenager in his last year of high-school, comes to services every week and posts Jewish content on his Instagram account. And Ami reconnected to her jewish roots, after learning her great-grandmother fled persecution in Latvia and converted to Christianity in Brazil. Ami was proud to share that she is converting to Judaism, and after a year of study, this was her first time attending synagogue.

Throughout my visit, my main worry was overcoming the language barrier. How would I interact with Brazilians? With my infinitesimally small vocabulary in Portuguese and lack of knowledge about Brazilian culture, I imagined interactions, if at all, would be filled with long, awkward pauses.

It turned out that sports was a great way to break barriers. Although Brazilians are known for their soccer acumen, Franca is the basketball capital of Brazil, and a hot topic of conversation was the loss of the local team in the Brazilian championship match.

But I didn’t just talk the talk; rather, I shot the shot. At Escola Industrial high school, we played a pickup game of basketball with Brazilian students who were so excited to meet Americans they ditched class. Their lack of English proficiency wasn’t a problem at all: Basketball has its own international language, and after the game, smiles lit up everyone’s faces, and the strong sense of camaraderie was palpable throughout the gym.

Bonding through basketball and seeing how the Brazilians welcome the Jewish community inspired me to design a local community project that will break stereotypes and promote friendly relations among youth from different religions: COEXIST Basketball League (CBL).

In the CBL, youth from Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities (and other faith communities) will play in mixed teams at venues such as JCC, Muslim Community Center, YMCA, etc. After each game, a clergy member from one of the religions will lead a stimulating dialogue over snacks and drinks.

“Vive la différence” is a famous expression literally meaning “long live the difference,” but broadly meaning we should celebrate our differences. Although American and Brazilian cultures are remarkably different, I found that this enriched my experience. Similarly, in the proposed COEXIST League, youth from different religions–through shooting hoops–will learn about each other’s religions, find common ground, and build bridges of peace.

Overcoming long-held prejudices and breaking stereotypes is not an easy task. But with the help of fair-minded people in the Greater DC area, we can make this a reality.

I believe that while scoring points on the court, COEXIST League participants will score far more important points in the hearts and minds of each other.

Niv Leibowitz is a rising Junior at Berman Hebrew Academy. To find out more about COEXIST Basketball League, contact [email protected]     


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