Leader’s Vision Helps Brazil’s Jewish Community Grow

February 24, 2012


On a typical Sunday in São Paulo, Brazil, you’ll find the JCC Hebraica buzzing with activities for Jews of every age, from Baby Space for toddlers and moms to youth group meetings to cultural events like concerts, theatre performances, and Israeli dance circles. You can jump into a game of soccer, take a music lesson, watch a film at the cinema, or have a delicious meal at the in-house kosher restaurant. And that’s just the beginning.

Half of Brazil’s estimated 120,000 Jews live in São Paulo, and some 25,000 of them belong to JCC Hebraica, making it one of the largest Jewish Community Centers in the world. Every weekend over 12,000 people—orthodox, conservative, reform, and secular—come here to enjoy its sophisticated facilities and convene with fellow Jews, young and old.

Heading up this exemplary institution for the past 20 years is General Director and CEO Gabriel Milevsky. Originally from Buenos Aires with a background in business administration and organizational psychology, Gabriel was among the first generation of participants in Leatid, JDC’s senior leadership development initiative in Latin America that provides trainings, workshops, and forums to empower leaders to deal with the community challenges they encounter—economic, religious, and other. Gabriel initially relocated from Argentina as a JDC consultant to advise a smaller Jewish community in southern Brazil but he soon moved to São Paulo to take the lead in the city’s premier informal education institution.

Since then he’s been an instrumental partner in Brazil, where JDC has replicated its Ariel Job Center and Baby Help program models, monitored a microloan program, and conducted outreach to smaller communities in areas far from the bustling cities. As is in many Latin American countries, in BrazilJDC is a partner and consultant to the local Jewish community, helping them to enhance services, develop innovative initiatives, and find new and creative ways to reach the Jewish population.

Most recently, JDC worked with Gabriel to help him bring Limmud Keshet—a creative, experiential, volunteer-driven forum for Jewish learning that takes place in over 20 countries around the globe—to São Paulo. Gabriel has been a volunteer since the program’s inception and hundreds of young people have turned up over the last couple of years, making it a hallmark event in the community.

Gabriel gets excited about bringing teens and young adults into programs he conceives at JCC Hebraica. “Recruiting young people to the community is always a challenge, but we’ve had great experience with special initiatives such as our Adventure trips,” he said, referencing their ecotourism program that has mobilized over 3000 people, from recent high school graduates to 30-year-olds. They’ve traveled throughout Brazil and visited the Caribbean, South Africa, Israel, and Argentina, enjoying adventure sports and studying up on sustainability and ecology along the way.

He’s also spearheaded Hebraikino, the highly successful local youth group; the center’s music school; a training program for madrichim (counselors); and a solidarity group that brings young people together for community service activities to assist the poor and the sick throughout the city.

Last year he helped make the pan-American Maccabi games happen in São Paulo through Hebraica, bringing together 2600 people from throughout Latin America, as well as the US, Israel, South Africa, and Australia.

With over 20 years of leadership experience under his belt, Gabriel has big goals for the future of the JCC and his community that involve both increasing participation and retaining those who are currently active. “We’re delving into formal education, building a school at Hebraica to involve more children,” he said. “And we want to take our activities beyond our space, too, borrowing from JDC’s successful “JCC Without Walls’ programs elsewhere to allow more members to take part in local activities.”

Even as Gabriel sets his sights on expanding Jewish life into the streets of São Paulo, he excitedly encourages any visitors to his city to make a stop at JCC Hebraica. Should you be in the neighborhood, don’t forget to include a visit on your itinerary!

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