[BRAZIL] Mourning the Passing of Rabbi Henry Sobel Z”L

It is with sadness that World Union shares the news of the passing of Rabbi Henry Sobel Z”L in Miami on November 22.

The death of Henry Sobel, Brazil’s iconic rabbi and human rights activist, was mourned by Jewish and non-Jewish groups across Latin America’s largest nation.

The charismatic 75-year-old spiritual leader died Friday of lung cancer in a Miami hospital. Sobel made history by challenging Brazil’s military regime in 1975 by refusing to bury journalist Vladimir Herzog at the Jewish cemetery’s suicides wing for rejecting the official version that he had hanged himself.

“Breaking protocols of Judaism, facing resistance within the Jewish community, Sobel was one of the protagonists who paved the way for the end of dictatorship in Brazil, one of the great heroes,” said Herzog’s son, Ivo, about the rabbi, who later joined an interfaith act in honor of Herzog, putting his own life at risk.

Minutes after Sobel’s death, Brazilian Jews started to narrate life stories and post pictures from weddings and bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies with the rabbi, whose trademarks were his red yarmulke  positioned close to his forehead and his heavily English-accented Portuguese.

“The mission of us Jews is not to make the world more Jewish, but rather to make it more human,” was one of Sobel most famous quotes.

Sobel used to welcome and be welcomed by global Jewish and non-Jewish figures, including presidents, prime ministers, and popes. On Saturday, admirers released a video clip showing Sobel side by side with Shimon Peres, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and others.

Rabbi Sobel with Sheik Armando Hussein Saleh, a leader of Brazil’s Islamic community, and Archbishop Claudio Hummes of São Paulo in September 2001, announcing plans for a memorial event to honor the victims of the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11. Photo: Maurico Lima/Agence-France Presse

“A unique figure who left an indelible mark on the country’s history,” said Fernando Lottenberg, president of the Brazilian Israelite Confederation, the country’s umbrella Jewish organization. “The greatest community leader of all time,” added Jack Terpins, honorary president of the Latin American branch of the World Jewish Congress.

Sobel’s death drew widespread media coverage across the nation. Brazil’s primetime news show Jornal Nacional dedicated three minutes to summarizing Sobel’s life. The country’s leading news portal G1 released a long list of condolence messages.

Born in Lisbon to a family of Polish immigrants during their escape path to the United States, Sobel eventually studied to become a Reform rabbi in New York. He arrived in Brazil in 1970 and took the helm of Congregacao Israelita Paulista synagogue, which he helped become the largest Jewish congregation in Latin America with 2,000 families.

Hazkara ceremony for Rabbi Sobel z”l. Photo: Congregação Israelita Paulista

Sobel established dialogue and built bridges between Judaism and the other religions, participating in numerous ecumenical services as an effusive representative for interreligious dialogue.

A hazkara ceremony for the rabbi was held at the CIP synagogue in Sao Paulo attended by about 750 guests. Eminent figures, politicians and community leaders were present to pay tribute and reaffirm Rabbi Sobel’s importance to the Brazilian community .


Our condolences go out to his family. May his memory continue to bless us all.


With information of Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).