Why Israelis feel at home on this remote Brazilian island

An Israeli couple at Second Beach in Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil. (photo credit: RENATO SANTANA/CORREIO)
An Israeli couple at Second Beach in Morro de Sao Paulo, Brazil.

MORRO DE SAO PAULO – Summer is just around the corner here and the breathtaking beaches of Brazil’s northeastern coast will be packed soon with tourists from around the world. Many of them will be sababas.

A derivative of an Israeli slang word that roughly means “cool,” sababas is how many locals in this picturesque car-free village refer to Israeli backpackers.

“There’s an invasion of Israelis in the summer,” said Miguel Kertzman, president of the Jewish federation in the Brazilian state of Bahia.

Kertzman estimates that some 5,000 Israeli tourists will disembark in Bahia’s capital city of Salvador between December and the Carnival holidays in late February.

“The large majority are youths who have just finished the army and need to have a good rest and just relax,” Kertzman said. “There is no better place than Morro.”

Settled in 1535, Morro de Sao Paulo – or St. Paul’s Hill – is one of five villages on Tinhare, one of 26 islands in an archipelago just off Brazil’s Atlantic coast. The once sleepy fishing village first drew hippies and backpackers in the 1970s and became a trendy destination in the 1980s, but even today Morro’s population is less than 4,000.

Yet more than a dozen establishments along the village’s main street feature signs in Hebrew, including a hostel, restaurant, tourist agency and a pizza place. Locals show off Hebrew tattoos, local children have Israeli names and flags display the Hebrew word for “messiah.” During the summer, the beachfront clubs are busy all night. Drugs are cheap and abundant.

“For 22 years, I’ve always been told what to do and what not to do. We go straight from school to the army,” backpacker Boaz Cohen said. “Now nobody else tells me what to do. If I want to party, I will. I like to feel free. I know I’ll need to go to college and take care of the future, but during this travel period, I have no pressure.”

Ortal Shani, 23, said many come because there are not so many rules.

“People dance in the streets, fool around, feel free, drink, smoke. It’s a worry-free life. It’s paradise,” Shani said.

Not even the 24-hour trip seems to keep sababas from this Brazilian heaven. From Tel Aviv, it requires a 15-hour flight to Sao Paulo, followed by a 2 1/2-hour flight to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, and then a three-hour boat ride to Morro. Israelis are the second largest group here by nationality (after Argentines, who have a dramatically shorter trip), according to the Cairu municipality, which includes Morro de Sao Paulo.

Morro is by far the most sought-after destination for Israelis booking travel packages through Tisot Drom America, a tourist agency run by Mauricio Laukenikas, 44, a Rio-born member of the Jewish community of Salvador.

“We are ready for another summer with lots of thousands of Israelis. The number grows every year,” Laukenikas told JTA. “Morro offers lush nature, lots of parties. It has become a meeting point for Israelis, who can speak their language and be well supported by the Chabad.”

The local outpost of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement was opened two years ago and has already become a meeting place for Israelis in Morro. It is led by 24-year-old Rabbi Mendy Gerenstadt, who was born in Israel and brought to Brazil when he was 3 months old after his parents became Chabad envoys in Sao Paulo.

“People spend three or four weeks here, and there used to be nothing of Judaism,” Gerenstadt said. “We hold prayers and classes, but also provide health assistance and help in the case of emergencies. I asked myself where was the place that needed more help, so here I am.”

During the Carnival season, Gerenstadt will ship some 200 pounds of kosher meat to Morro from the Jewish community of Belem more than 1,000 miles away.

“Our house is a place for Israelis to be in touch with Israel and Judaism,” he said.

In 2012, a YouTube video helped make Morro even more popular among Israelis. A Brazilian rabbi with an internet television show interviewed a local Afro Brazilian youth, who amazingly answered in fluent Hebrew, including the Israeli hard-to-pronounce guttural “r” and several slang expressions.

“Israelis are my friends, they are a present from God to me,” said Marcos dos Santos, who was filmed holding his son Assaf, a common Israeli name.

Santos’ passion for sababas started accidentally. Raised in a poor family in the countryside, he moved to Morro 15 years ago seeking a job. He was hired at a local hotel, where he met an Israeli who was impressed by the way he treated the clientele and offered to teach him Hebrew.

“He told me that because Israelis spend several months far from their families, they needed special care,” Santos said. “For him, I could be the right guy.”

Today, Santos owns his own small hotel, Sampa no Morro. The reception area features several signs in Hebrew, an Israeli flag and two menorahs given as gifts by guests. A painted message in Hebrew — “I was in Morro with Marcos and his family” — has become a popular backdrop for selfies.

“Everything I have today I owe to Israelis,” the 33-year-old evangelical Christian told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I can’t live without Hebrew. I even dream in Hebrew. In the winter, when there are not so many Israelis here, I spend the day talking to my Israeli friends on WhatsApp.”

A second boost to Morro’s popularity among Israelis came in 2017, when the first season of the “Magic Malabi Express” comedy series aired on Israel’s Channel 10. The show is an adaptation of an autobiographical book by Miki Geva, an Israeli actor and comedian who visited the island after his military service, and the first season was shot in Morro.

The series was a watershed moment, according to Yasmin Tiker, a 24-year-old Israeli who rents apartments to a clientele that is 80 percent Israeli. Born to a Brazilian mother who immigrated to Israel, she speaks flawless Portuguese.

“Israelis often recommend places they like, post on the internet, leave testimonials. They make their point clear about what they like and rely heavily on tips from their countrymen,” Tiker said.

“There is a connection among Israelis, something I haven’t seen in any other nationality. One helps the other a lot, no matter if they know each other or not. If an Israeli has a problem, he will never feel alone here.”