It was our first Tot Shabbat with our toddler at Arlington’s Congregation Etz Hayim when my Puerto Rican-born husband, Luis, and I heard Spanish–Spanish!–spoken by other parents to their children.

“Their accents sound South American!”

“Let’s talk to them! People like us!”

Luis and I whispered to each other with barely contained excitement.

It’s unusual for someone like me, who grew up in Montgomery County, to hear languages other than English or Hebrew spoken in a local synagogue, which are usually a hotbed of Ashkenazi caucasians. “Diversity” at my childhood shul amounted to having a kid in your Hebrew school class who was adopted from an Asian country—or maybe there was even a redhead. How “exotic.”

Perhaps demographics have changed over time or a more diverse crowd is drawn to congregations outside those I’ve attended in the past, but Etz Hayim is a unique, diverse community unlike any other I’ve experienced in the area. And perhaps the main reason for such diversity is because of its spiritual leader, Brazilian-born Rabbi Lia Bass.

Born in Rio de Janeiro and ordained in New York, Rabbi Bass is Northern Virginia’s first female Conservative rabbi as well as the first woman from Brazil to be ordained.

Though it’s estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 Jews now living in Brazil, the Jewish people have a long history in the country with the first Jews arriving in 1500. Once the Inquisition spread to Portugal in the 16th century, many Jews fled to Brazil to avoid religious persecution. The first known Jews to arrive in North America sailed from Recife, Brazil—then ruled by the Dutch—and landed in New Amsterdam in 1654.

With the retreat of the inquisition and religious freedoms granted by Brazil, European and North African Jews arrived in the country over the next couple of hundred years, bringing their traditions and integrating into the South American culture.

Because of its history, Brazilian Jewry has its roots in Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions including the varied flavors of its food. Rabbi Bass shared two of her favorite recipes from her home in Brazil–-Pao de Queijo and Brigadeiro–-both of which are kosher for Passover and delicious all year ‘round.

Pao de Queijo is a delicious alternative to bland pastries and dry matzah. It’s a fluffy cheese “bread” ubiquitous in Brazilian cuisine that’s made with tapioca flour, an ingredient derived from plants and found at natural food stores

With just four ingredients, Brigadeiro are simple to make and a decadent addition to the Passover dessert offerings…a sweet taste of Brazilian Jewry.

Photo by Stacey Viera