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SAO PAULO, Brazil, May 11 (JTA)--With hundreds of rabbis, community activists and synagogue-goers in the audience, the excitement was palpable as Brazil's first female rabbi took to the bimah, podium, on Shabbat, the Sabbath.
Never before had a female spiritual leader been invited to the bimah at the 2,000-family Congregacao Israelita Paulista, Brazil's largest synagogue, affiliated with both the Reform and the Conservative movements.
But Rabbi Sandra Kochmann's appearance on the bimah was one of many signs of change at a recent gathering of the Reform movement, the Conference of Jewish Communities of the Americas.
"There was electricity in the air," said Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, of Kochmann's appearance on the bimah.
In late 2003, Kochmann took the post of assistant rabbi at Rio de Janeiro's largest synagogue, the 1,000-family Associacao Religiosa Israelita, also known as ARI. She was the only woman among 25 rabbis at the April 29-May 2 conference in Sao Paulo.
"I felt like a hero when I saw that all of ARI's delegation members sitting in the first rows were staring at me," Kochmann said of her appearance on the bimah. "That truly represented a lot for them; I was like their daughter up there."
Some 350 people from 50 Reform institutions across Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Canada, the United States and Israel attended the conference, debating topics such as Jewish education, intermarriage, small communities, the role of women in Jewish community, human rights, youth, Jewish outreach and homosexual Jews.
For some, the conference was an opportunity to see how Reform Judaism varies from country to country.
Lenore Mass, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism in the Chicago area, said she was struck by the vast differences regarding women's roles between Reform Judaism in Brazil and in the United States.
"It is clear that even in more egalitarian congregations in Brazil there is still a long way to go," Mass said. "In talking with some of the women at the conference, it was clear that many--even those from somewhat more liberal congregations--feel real pain at being relegated to a status more on the periphery, though they also acknowledged that many other women in their congregations did not perceive a problem and were not looking for change."
Historian Jeannete Erlich, of Rio's Associacao Religiosa Israelita, said there were few opportunities to discuss how interfaith couples could be integrated into Jewish communal life.
"I was very disappointed to see that the issue was swept under the rug," she said. "On the other hand, I was very glad to see that ARI is light years ahead of the others. We have an open attitude in welcoming couples in which one of the spouses is not Jewish. We must focus on the children; we can't cast off children with Jewish potential."
Rabbi Leonardo Alanati, spiritual leader of the 180-family Congregacao Israelita Mineira, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, said, "One of the challenges of Liberal Judaism in small communities is to keep a moderate action line so that people can absorb the changes."
He mentioned innovations such as egalitarianism, saying, "Evolution instead of revolution."
At his synagogue, Alanati said, men and women sit together "except for the four front rows, which are reserved for those who wish to stay separated."
Women also are counted toward the minyan, quorum of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah, at Alanati's synagogue, but are not allowed to read the Torah.
Mario Grunebaum, president of Sao Paulo's Congregacao Shalom, said, "Some two-thirds of Sao Paulo's Jews attend no synagogue, not even on the High Holidays. These people are our biggest challenge--their return to Judaism."
Marcelo Kozmhinsky came to the conference from Recife, Brazil, the first Jewish community established in the Americas.
"Today," he said, "we have no other temple beside Chabad. We came to find an alternative way to live Judaism other than the Orthodox way."
Buenos Aires-based Rabbi Sergio Bergman, executive president of a group called Fundacion Judaica, said Argentine and Brazilian Jews should cooperate by holding joint events such as conferences and seminars.
"The meaning of the word community can't be other than common-unity," he said.
The next Conference of the Jewish Communities of the Americas is scheduled for mid-2005 in Buenos Aires.
"Until then, we hope to start a culture of acceptance for Liberal Judaism and things that Latin American chauvinism rejects, like the opening for women in rites that were once exclusive to men," said Miriam Wasserman, the World Union for Progressive Judaism's representative for Latin America.