“Israel is the place where I feel at home, happy, among my people,” Kalmanovich told JTA. “We say ‘Shabbat shalom’ to the bus driver, to the garbage man, to the sales clerk. Everyone shares mostly the same social and economic level. We all celebrate the same national holidays. It’s like living in a huge kibbutz of 8 million people. Here I am the rule, not the exception.”
Kalmanovich is not alone. Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Brazil has more than doubled in the past four years, from 191 in 2011 to over 400 so far this year. The average growth in aliyah for all of Latin America in the same period was just 7 percent. Though it has approximately half the Jewish population of neighboring Argentina, Brazil has sent more immigrants to Israel for two years running. An estimated 120,000 Jews live in Brazil.
“They seek a better future,” said Gladis Berezowsky, 58, who helps run Beit Brasil, a nongovernmental organization based in Israel established in 2014 to assist Brazilians seeking to move to Israel.
Brazil, a nation of 200 million, is facing its steepest recession in a quarter century, with the economy expected to shrink by almost 2 percent this year – down from more than 7 percent GDP growth in 2010. The Brazilian real has shrunk 138 percent compared to the American dollar in the past five years and the inflation rate has edged up to 10 percent.
The country is also one of the bloodiest on earth, with more than 58,000 Brazilians dying a violent death in 2014.
“More people are killed every year in Brazil through intentional violence than anywhere else on the planet, including most of the world’s war zones combined,” said Robert Muggah, a research director of a Rio-based think tank that studies the intersection between violence and the drug trade.
“We wanted to give our children a better quality of life in the educational, social and religious fields,” Erlich said. “Israel allows you to be a Jew with no limitations, not only in the outside but mainly deep within. Finding a job in Israel made our big Zionist dream come true.”
Brazilian Jews have traditionally boasted a comfortable upper-middle-class life, but things are changing. Several Jewish day schools have merged or are in the process in order to survive, while administrators at some of them say the number of scholarship applications has never been higher.
“We have seen a 100 percent rise in requests recently,” said Yehoshua Goldman, the chief Rio representative of Chabad, which runs Lar da Esperanca (Home of Hope), an organization for Jews in financial need.
Psychologist Rita Cohen Wolf is a neighbor of the Teitelbaums in Raanana, where she settled in 1977 after she had been robbed eight times in Brazil. The last time, she had a gun pointed at her head.
In 2014, Wolf posted an open letter to President Dilma Rousseff on Facebook in which she criticized the violence in Brazil. She was astonished to see it republished in the Brazilian press.
“In Brazil, violence is felt every day,” Wolf told JTA. “In Israel, we don’t feel threatened with imminent violence. The feeling of security with our police and army plus unity of the population reinforces the generalized feeling that we are not alone.”