How is Reform Judaism different in Latin America?

by Beni Wajnberg

When we think about remodeling a building in need of repair, the way to safely and accurately perform such reform depends on the structure of the edifice itself; and the same is true to religion. A lot of what a Reform Jewish identity relies on is the cultural repertoire of those involved. Different cultural contexts result in different developments of one’s religious characteristics/identifications.

Reform Judaism, in Latin America, is always struggling with itself; not that Reform Judaism does not (or should) struggle in other places. There always seems to be a tension even in the terminology: Reform? Progressive? Liberal?  Such complexity comes from the origin of the Reform (Progressive? Liberal?) movement in the region.

Reform Judaism in Latin America developed directly from the European movement. The beginning of Liberal Judaism in the region dates from the generations that were fleeing from Nazi Europe; and to help the development of Progressive Judaism, the World Union for Progressive Judaism sent European rabbis to serve those that found a safe refuge in Latin America. The two most central figures in the development of the movement in Brazil came from Europe. Their names were Rabbi Dr. Fritz Pinkus (who established the Congregacao Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo) and Rabbi Dr. Henrique Lemle (who established the Associacao Religiosa Israelita in Rio de Janeiro). Rabbi Lemle was actually rescued from Buchenwald, a concentration camp, by Lady Lilly Montagu, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and came to Brazil through London.

As a consequence of its direct linkage with European Liberal Jewry, Latin American temples established as their fundamental melodies those that they were used to in Europe. Until nowadays, as a clear evidence of the German Reform heritage, the music found in Latin America, in a Reform Temple, is mostly Louis Lewandowski’s melodies accompanied by an organ. However, the use of vernacular is not as present as it is in the United States. And so, those used to Classical Reform Judaism will recognize immediately the music; however, the use of local languages did not become central to the Progressive movement. It might be that such is the case because the region was always extremely Zionist – and so, Hebrew found its way into synagogues in a permanent and constant way. Besides that, Reform congregations in the region are more conservative than in the United States – leading to the usage of more Hebrew; the use of kippoth is not optional – especially for clergy – and kashrut is respected more strictly in the region (though it has not always been the case).

Latin America’s society is generally more conservative than the North American one – all of these countries are predominately Catholic, and there is still a lot of influence from the Church at least on a cultural level. All of this tends to be reflected in Jewish communities in the region as well. CIP (the Reform congregation in Sao Paulo already mentioned) is still not an egalitarian congregation. A woman cannot have an aliyah to the Torah, and men and women sit separately in the main religious service. The same is not necessarily true for other congregations, though.

Since the region itself tends to be more conservative, some of the core issues that have been on the agenda of American Reform Jewry are still being developed. In terms of egalitarianism, as noted before, some Reform communities still have to develop their practices on that matter. The idea of a female rabbi serving a congregation was not a real possibility until recently. The very first woman rabbi to serve in Brazil was Sandra Kochmann, only in 2003. Before then, if a woman decided to become a rabbi, she would likely have to find a pulpit elsewhere; however, since Kochmann, it became a reality. The region also still needs to make important advancements in the public acceptance of homosexuals (the Conservative seminary in Argentina, for example, still does not accept homosexual students), both in terms of leadership and community roles. That is, the region could benefit a lot from rabbis who are clear and transparent about their sexuality, so that, as leaders, they can inspire a greater acceptance of homosexuals in those communities, and, by that, in the major society as well.

There is still a lot of work to be done in Latin American Jewish communities. The development of Reform Judaism is crucial for the thousands and thousands of Jews that live in the region, so that every single individual can, as one of the local Reform congregation’s has as its slogan, “find his/her Judaism”, so that the Jewish experience in the region – which dates back to the 17th century – can continue to be explored and developed.

Beni Wajnberg is a second year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. He was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he went to college before entering HUC-JIR.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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4 Responses to “How is Reform Judaism different in Latin America?”

  1. avatar

    There may be Reform Judaism in Brazil, but what about other Latin American countries? Colombia ia one I am familiar with and it only has Orthodox and Chabad congregations, leaving many Jews secular.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    You can find a complete list of congregations affiliated with the Reform movement in Latin America and the Caribbean at

    Although Rabbi-to-be Wajnberg calls attention to the historical role of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in getting liberal Judaism started in South America, it should be noted that WUPJ continues to play a role in the region, bringing the congregations of the region together with one another and with the rest of the worldwide Reform movement.

    Corroborating what Wajnberg says about the lag in egalitarianism, I had the privilege of attending the adult bat mitzvah in Jerusalem of a Brazilian woman whose rabbi in Sao Paolo had been willing to teach her the Hebrew and the trope so could read Torah from the bimah , but was not willing for it to happen in his synagogue. Reform Jews from all over the world celebrated with her, though, when she was called for her first aliyah at WUPJ headquarters in Israel during the Connections 2007 international conference. (By the way, that service was conducted in all the languages represented at the conference — English, Hebrew, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Portugese, and German are those I remember.

  3. avatar

    I have always found Latin American Progressive Judaism fascinating, especially in the way it has preserved an old European Reform aesthetic, but melded it with wildly traditionalist sensibilities. There are stories of horrid misogyny and homophobia in Progressive Jewish communities in Latin America, but an organist friend of mine tells me that the organ in the Buenos Aires Progressive Synagogue is one of the best and last remaining “old” synagogue organs.

  4. avatar

    We are part of a small Reform community in El Salvador, Central America. We face a problem that most Latin America has: there is almost no Reform Judaism literature in Spanish. Most literature in Spanish comes from Orthodox editorials from Mexico and Argentina, even Siddurim. Thanks to our Rabbi, born in Brazil and who lives in the US, we have some material, like his own book “HaMadrich”; and he is also very close to us in many Latin American countries. I do have many URJ´s and CCAR´s literature, but in general we really need more books in Spanish. A Spanish version of Mishkan Tefila would be really awesome, and also books like “Jewish Living”. Take a look to Beit Hillel El Salvador´s blog. We are a very small community but we really feel we are part of the Reform Community. Thank you very much for URJ´s efforts such as this blog and mainly for 10 Minutes of Torah, it´s a fantatic way to stay in touch of Reform Movement in America!

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