Rabbi Henry Sobel, 75, Dies; Defied Brazil’s Military Rulers


Rabbi Henry Sobel, a Brazilian human rights activist who led Latin America’s largest liberal Jewish congregation and who drew wide attention for defying his country’s dictatorship in the aftermath of a notorious political killing, died on Friday in Miami. He was 75.

The cause was complications of lung cancer, relatives said. He had lived in Miami since 2013.

Rabbi Sobel (pronounced so-BELL), a Lisbon native who led the Congregação Israelita Paulista in São Paulo, was a national figure in his adopted homeland, his counsel sought by presidents, popes and the Dalai Lama.

He came to prominence in Brazil in 1975, after Vladimir Herzog, the news director of a São Paulo television station, was murdered in prison by his military torturers a few hours after he was arrested, accused of being part of a Communist network. The murder shocked Brazilians and was denounced by Archbishop Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paulo, another champion of human rights.

The dictatorship falsely claimed that Mr. Herzog had committed suicide; it made public a photograph, later proved to have been staged, that purported to show Mr. Herzog hanging from a belt in his cell. Suicide would have relegated his burial to a remote corner of the Cemitério Israelita do Butantã. (Historically, Judaism has regarded suicide as defying God’s will.) But Rabbi Sobel chose to inter Mr. Herzog at the center of the cemetery, with full rites.

Days later, he led an interfaith service in honor of Mr. Herzog at the Catedral da Sé, the seat of the Archdiocese of São Paulo, alongside Archbishop Arns (who later became a cardinal) and Jaime Wright, a Presbyterian pastor. Thousands turned out for the service and stood in silent protest in a rare display of defiance against the despotic military leaders who would run Brazil for another decade.

“I looked for what was certain and left God to resolve the rest,” Rabbi Sobel said in a 2013 interview, in which he recalled his determination to see that Mr. Herzog’s death would not have been in vain. “That meant being a conscious Jew. To take responsibility, to act, to fight if necessary. And to trust. To trust.”

Four former presidents of Brazil paid tribute to him over the weekend, as did Mr. Herzog’s son, Ivo, who noted that some Brazilian Jews, believing that political activism was not the proper role of a synagogue, had objected to Rabbi Sobel’s political activities.

In breaking the protocols of Judaism, in facing resistance within the Jewish community, he was a protagonist in paving the way for the end of the dictatorship,” Ivo Herzog said in a statement. “If my father was one of the victims of that period, Henry Sobel was one of the great heroes.”

Henry Isaac Sobel was born in Lisbon on Jan. 9, 1944, to Lazar and Bella (Cleeman) Sobel. Both parents had fled Nazi persecution during World War II, his mother from Belgium, his father from Poland. The family moved from Portugal to the United States, settling in New York, where Rabbi Sobel attended the Jewish-run Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He graduated from Yeshiva University and later from the Hebrew Union College as a Reform rabbi.

Deciding that Brazil would be fertile ground for his rabbinical ambitions, he moved there in 1970. In South America, he believed, he “could create something that was genuinely mine,” he later said. “Being a pioneer, an architect of Judaism according to my own approach.”

As president of the Congregação Israelita Paulista, which today has a membership of 2,000 families, Rabbi Sobel was known for his efforts to build bridges between Judaism and other faiths through ecumenical events.

Davi Alcolumbre, the president of Brazil’s Senate, said of Rabbi Sobel in a Facebook post, “His achievements undoubtedly made him one of the greatest references for Brazilian Judaism and for our society in the struggle and defense of human rights.”

The Jewish Confederation of Brazil estimates that there are 120,000 Jews in Brazil, making it the 10th-largest Jewish community in the world.

Rabbi Sobel’s reputation was tarnished in 2007 when he was charged with stealing a designer necktie from a store in Palm Beach, Fla. Four more stolen neckties were found in his car, the police said. This “inexplicable” act, as Rabbi Sobel described it, cost him his congregation: He stepped down as leader at his own request, according to the congregation.

Rabbi Sobel is survived by his wife, Amanda (Tasch) Sobel; a daughter, Alisha Sobel Szuster; and a grandson. He was buried on Sunday at Woodbridge Memorial Gardens in New Jersey.

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