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Drawing the Boundaries of Non-Catholic Religions in Argentina and Brazil: Conversion to Islam and the Return to Orthodox Judaism (Teshuva)


On the basis of ongoing research, this article attempts to advance a comparative perspective of conversion to Islam and return to Orthodox Judaism in two different national Catholic contexts: Argentina and Brazil. It aims to shed light on the plausibility of changing from one way of life to another in both monotheistic religions. At the center of this exploratory study are two conversion-led movements: Jewish religious revival (teshuva) and the emergence of Muslim convert communities in Buenos Aires, with some references to San Pablo as well. This comparative approach examines the dynamics reshaping religious frontiers within both communities: one awakening and legitimizing an ethno-national diaspora of “religion as heritage,” in contrast with the other, which is expanding “religion as belief” among non-Arabic people. The illustrations of similarities and differences when adopting alternative beliefs focus on symbolic devices framing the borders of both communities, as well as the dynamics of adopting traditional modalities. Transformations in the meaning of identity and belonging in both non-Catholic groups are assessed in relation to the frameworks of diversity and multiculturalism in the national social contexts of both countries.

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  1. Conversion from other religion to Judaism is a very marginal process hardly encouraged in the Jewish world.

  2. Practices following the precepts include touching the scroll on a doorpost as you enter a room, washing left and right hands in a specified order before a meal, lighting candles on Friday night, keeping one’s head covered at all times, having the maxim number of children, and many others

  3. The Shahadah (declaration of faith); prayer (Salah)—praying five times a day, kneeling toward Mecca; fasting during the month of Ramadan (Sawm); charity or alms-giving (Zakat); a pilgrimage to Mecca/Medina (Hajj).

  4. Many leaders from both religions have established themselves as officially recognized community figures, or in positions of influence, in São Paulo and Buenos Aires and communities which do not produce their own religious leadership (Bejarano et al. 2017; Topel 2008; Montenegro 2013; Hilu da Rocha Pinto 2009).

  5. “Conversion for me was to declare that there is no other God than the unique God of whom Mohammad is the Prophet,” explained Jamil, who converted 12 years ago.

  6. Members of the Ultra-Orthodox groups never agreed to meet outside home or institutions because for them to seat in bar coffees means a waste of time.

  7. A woman who considers herself being deeply involved in Islam explained that she cannot assist to prayers because she works till very late.

  8. Luciana García in São Paulo and Juan Ballestrin in Buenos Aires. The former is a PhD candidate now researching the converts in Brazil and the latter is an M.A. student working in his thesis about converts in Buenos Aires.

  9. For Brazil, see, Rocha and Vasquez (2013), The Diaspora of Brazilian Religions, Leiden: Brill; Lehmann, D., Religion as Heritage, Religion as Belief: Shifting Frontiers of Secularism in Europe, the USA and Brazil. International Sociology, Vol. 28 N. 6 (November): 645–662

  10. In 2015, there were over 120 mosques in Brazil but this number seems to be increasing steadily (Castro 2015).

  11. Examples of the variety of institutional presence of Orthodox in the Buenos Aries “teshuva market: “Yeshiva Jefetz Haim and Beit Midrash M. Guetzerzenstein, both chaired by Rabbi Shmuel Ariel Levin; Shevet Ajim, Shuva Israel, Yeshurum Community (Rav Yejezkel Levy), Yesodot Hadat (Rabbi Yosef Chebar and Efraim Diner); Ajdut Israel-Asociación Religiosa, Educativa y Cultural (Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer); Centro Comunitario Sucat David (Rabbi Abraham Serruya); Yeshivá Jajam Nissim Cohen (Rabbi Efraim Dines); Shorashim (Rabbi Ezra Chueque); Comunidad Torat Moshe (Rabbi Daniel Groissman);); Colel Bet Abraham (Rosh, Rabbi David Burshtein); Rabbinate Agudath Israel (Rabbi Yosef Libersohn); and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of Argentina (Rabbi Yosef Feigelstock, Rabbinical administrator; Rabbi I. Hendel, Posek).

  12. For example, in the Paulista district of Higienópolis today, there are 11 synagogues, a yeshiva, five Jewish schools, kosher restaurants, kosher catering services, butchers, bakeries, grocery products, a Jewish publisher, and a bookstore (Conib 2018).

  13. Besides Chabad headquarters (Central Tiferet Lubavitch, with 17 rabbis carrying out a variety of communal and religious services, and Beit Chabad do Brasil–Headquarters Synagogue, Library and Kollel), 19 other Chabad centers are located in different neighborhoods. These include Beit Chabad Heichal Menachem Santana, Beit Chabad Itaim, Beit Chabad Morumbí, Beit Chabad Perdizes/Sumare, Beit Chabad Vila Mariana, Chabad das Vilas, Chabad Taubaté, Chabad Barra Funda, and Chabad for Israelis in S. Paulo.

    The Chabad organization in São Paulo has also developed, and now operates, former Jewish Youth centers and old congregations, such as Centro Judaico Novo Horizonte, Bracha Caroline Youth Center, Congregaçãoo Tsemach Tsedec, Sinagoga Beit Menachem, and Tzeirei Agudas Chabad. Besides this wide range of activities, the Orthodox movement operates the Mishcan Menachem Chabad House in Jd. Paulista, and an educational complex, the Lubavitch Schools Brazil (preschool, day school, and after-school programs, Hebrew cheder, Hebrew School, and Yeshiva)

  14. Quram Reading, 24/11/17.

  15. We cannot generalize in the basis of these findings since our questions were not directed to this issue.

  16. The meeting was promoted by five young people from the Argentinian Orthodox community, and was led by rabbis Ariel Shmuel Levin, director of the Jafetz Jaim Yeshiva of Buenos Aires; Yosef Chehebar, Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of Argentina; and Faivel Soifer, of the Satmer community in Buenos Aires.

  17. Among them, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch Argentina, Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt; the director of the Ajdut Israel community, Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer; and rabbis Efrain Dines, Abraham Serruya, Eliahu Suli, Rafael Freue, Yechezkel Levy, Ruben Yacar, Salem, Shaul Mizrahi, Abraham Benchimol, Daniel Mohadeb, Aaron Deli, Menajem Abdeljak, Daniel Sutton, Moshe Hambra, and Ezra Cohen.

  18. Chevra Kadisha is an organization of Jewish men and women who see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial.

  19. An outstanding event of participation in the public sphere was the presence of Chabad rabbis in Tucuman at a commemoration of 200 years of Argentinian Independence. Rabbi Grinvalt presented Governor Manzur with the seven Noahide Laws, explaining their value as a guide in the ethical values of society.

  20. The Ashkenazi-Sephardic delineation, so deeply demarcated in the Jewish communities all over the world, is losing some strength in the process of return taking place in Brazil and Argentina. The frontiers may conflict but fluidity allows the creation of several spaces that shape identity while adopting new modes of participation, an approach initiated by the Chabad movement.

  21. The Muslim woman protested before the official who issued her identity document: “The Constitution talks about freedom of worship and everyone has the right to profess their religion, you will not leave me without my identity because I am Muslim.” Garcia Somoza and Valcárcel 2016: 57.


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The authors wish to thank the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for The Advancement of Peace for their generous funding toward this project. The authors further wish to note that the study and its publication raise no conflict of interest.

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Siebzehner, B., Senkman, L. Drawing the Boundaries of Non-Catholic Religions in Argentina and Brazil: Conversion to Islam and the Return to Orthodox Judaism (Teshuva). Int J Lat Am Relig 3, 40–67 (2019).

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  • Coversion-led movements
  • Religious boundaries
  • Conversion to Islam
  • Return to Judaism (teshuva)
  • Comparative research