Porto Alegre is a large city in the south of Brazil, a five-hour drive from the border with Uruguay. Five rivers converge there, making it an important center of industry and commerce. Though its name means “joyful harbor,” in 2017, Porto Alegre ranked as the world’s 39th most violent city, with nearly 41 homicides per 100,000 residents. And while the city does have a sizable Jewish community, primarily Eastern Europeans who founded the local União Israelita association and settled in the Bom Fim neighborhood, there are no direct flights from Porto Alegre to Tel Aviv. So why, you might wonder, is Porto Alegre featured in the final episode of a series exploring life in Israel during the pandemic?
Porto Alegre is home to Isabel Christina de Oliveira, a 54-year-old public school teacher. Isabel isn’t Jewish and has never been to Israel. But through Israel Story, and over Zoom, she found an unlikely friend with whom she could share a terribly painful experience.
Back in March, Isabel traveled to Italy. Unbeknownst to her, she contracted the virus in Bergamo, and brought it back to Brazil. She was the first COVID-19 patient in her region. And though she immediately went into quarantine, she was publicly shamed and blamed, especially on social media. Vicious posts accused her of infecting the country and made her feel incredibly guilty.
If all that sounds familiar, you are not mistaken: In episode 52, “In The Beginning”, we told a similar story about Roni Bargill, Israel’s patient no. 7. Under normal circumstances, Isabel and Roni would have never met. But Isabel’s daughter’s friend, a Brazilian journalist by the name of Giovana Fleck, listened to the Israel Story episode, and translated it for Isabel. The emotional upheaval they had each experienced was uncannily similar.
That’s where our team came in once again, arranging a Zoom call that left everyone in tears.
Thanks to Giovana Fleck and Maia Rubim, Kurt Hoffman, Wayne Hoffman, Sheila Lambert, Erica Frederick, Jeff Feig and Joy Levitt.
Project Kesher is a non-profit organization that empowers and invests in women. They develop Jewish women leaders – and interfaith coalitions – in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and Israel, deliver Torahs to women who’ve never held one before, broadcast women’s health information on Ukrainian Public Radio, and help Russian-speaking immigrants to Israel advocate for equal rights.