Elite private academy in Rio pressuring the city’s Jewish day schools

RIO DE JANEIRO – One of the hottest topics among Rio Jewish families today sits right across the street from both the city’s largest synagogue and the site of a future Holocaust memorial.

It’s a non-Jewish day school, directed by a Cohen with the support of a Levy, that is becoming a magnet to Jewish students — and some say a threat to Jewish schooling in the country’s second largest Jewish community.

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Founded in early 2017 at a cost of $30 million, Eleva is the newest bet for Brazil’s richest person, Jorge Paulo Lemann, whose fortune is estimated at $30 billion. Lemann, who is not Jewish, is the lead investor in the school, which is housed at the plush, palace-like building of the former Casa Daros cultural center. The 130,000-square-foot school boasts a highly trained faculty, an international curriculum that emphasizes English, and ties with a leading European sports club and cultural groups.

Eleva generates a love-hate sentiment among Rio’s 30,000 Jews: The school is seen as a long-awaited El Dorado for some, and a threat to Jewish continuity by those who fear that the city’s traditional Jewish schools may be not survive the competition.

“We really expected a high [Jewish] demand due to the unusual combination we propose: a strong traditional curriculum in both Portuguese and English, the intentional development of social and emotional skills, and an intense look at global citizenship,” Marcio Cohen, Eleva’s pedagogic director, told JTA.

Cohen is a grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants and married to an American Jew, but does not identify himself as Jewish.

Eleva has some 150 Jewish students out of a total student body of 1,000. That’s more than who attend ORT, the smallest of Rio’s four Jewish day schools, only half of whose 200 students come from a Jewish background.

“They made a strong investment in infrastructure and have a pedagogical proposal aiming at families that expect their children to live abroad,” ORT’s administrative director, Wilson Cukierman, told JTA. “We offer something unique: We are a Jewish, pluralistic school whose mission is the academic and professional training of youths, providing them with technological mastery.”

Bilingualism at a reasonable cost – Eleva charges a monthly fee of $1,300, only $300 more than Jewish schools – seems to be one of the most precious triumphs to attract more and more Jewish families. Like most of Brazil’s upper middle class, English is a ticket for moving abroad, or at least having the option to flee the country’s shocking murder rates – nearly 65,000 a year – and economic insecurity.  

“We want our kids in the future to be able and ready to choose between a Brazilian university and any international institution,” said Jonny Haiat, a Jewish father of three students at Eleva. “Also, it’s a different paradigm. Eleva is much more open-minded and values individuality and a broader development.”

The Rio Jewish federation does not reveal numbers of students enrolled in Jewish day schools. Education director Michel Ventura acknowledges that those numbers have dropped, but prefers to minimize the impact of Eleva.