Once a Janitor, Now the Bar Mitzvah Photography King of Montreal

With a touch of chutzpah and “a little help from God,” Braulio Rocha, a Roman Catholic Portuguese immigrant, traded in his mop for a camera.

By Dan Bilefsky

Dec. 31, 2021

MONTREAL — Braulio Rocha, a Portuguese janitor at a Montreal synagogue, was about to begin his daily floor mopping routine some years ago when he heard a frantic voice: The photographer assigned to shoot a bris, a ritual circumcision, hadn’t shown up, and the baby’s grandmother was panicking.

Mr. Rocha, an amateur photographer, had recently arrived in Canada from Madeira with $50 in savings and a beat-up old Canon camera that he always carried with him in his car. Wearing his gray and blue polyester janitor’s uniform, a long key ring dangling from his pocket, he recalls, he summoned up the courage and asked the forlorn grandmother if he could shoot the baby’s bris — for free.

She agreed, and a new career was born.

Brisses soon led to bar mitzvahs, and six years later, Mr. Rocha, a 45-year-old Roman Catholic, has been called the bar mitzvah photography king of Montreal by rabbis and clients alike.

Mr. Rocha, who had never met a Jew before setting foot in Montreal’s Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in 2015, is now so in demand that he sometimes shoots five bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies a week, is booked for bar mitzvahs into 2023, and employs a team of eight assistant photographers. He recently expanded into Hasidic weddings.

He has also traded in his antiquated Canon for a $3,200 model, bought a Volvo SUV, and moved from his cramped apartment into a four-bedroom house in the suburbs, filled with Armani clothing.

“I remember thinking, ‘You’re just a janitor,’” he said on a recent day, recalling his big bris break as he sat in the pews of the synagogue’s imposing sanctuary. “But I said to myself, ‘It’s now or never.’ I guess you could say I’m the Canadian dream.”

Sometimes, when he was still both a janitor and a photographer, he worked such long days that he slept on a synagogue pew. Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

Armed with a mix of chutzpah and a passion for photography he inherited from his father, who worked briefly as a photojournalist during Angola’s war of independence in the 1970s, Mr. Rocha credited Canada’s openness to immigrants for his good fortune.

Shaar Hashomayim, the oldest Ashkenazi synagogue in Canada, was founded in 1846, and shaped by immigrants from Europe, among them Lazarus Cohen, whose family went on to create one of Montreal’s largest clothing businesses. (Lazarus also happened to be the great-grandfather of Leonard Cohen, the Montreal-born gravelly voiced balladeer.)

Mr. Rocha said that hearing immigrant success stories like the one about the Cohen family had helped inspire him. “The Jews arrived in North America with nothing in their pockets, some survived genocide, and they rebuilt their lives and became successful,” he said. “I thought to myself: ‘If they did it, so can I.’”

Gideon Zelermyer, the Shaar’s cantor, who hired Mr. Rocha to shoot his son Max’s bar mitzvah, observed that a janitor reinventing himself as a bar mitzvah photography maven in a foreign country is a quintessentially Jewish story.

“There is a virtue in our community of welcoming strangers as we, too, were strangers in a strange land,” he said. “That is the story of Passover. There are times when you have to dust yourself off and move forward with life with a lot of uncertainty, and Braulio embodies that.”

Mr. Zelermyer observed that Mr. Rocha, a Tim Burton fan who likes to re-enact scenes from Hollywood films like the Indiana Jones series and “E.T.” in his bar mitzvah shoots, also stood out because of his flair for the dramatic.

In one of Mr. Rocha’s favorite images in his repertoire, he draws from the scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” when a shadowy light force emanates from the ark of the covenant and smites a group of Nazis. In his bar mitzvah version, however, Mr. Rocha said, the light envelopes the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl and “blesses, protects and guides them.”

Edward Salpeter blessing his son Dylan after his bar mitzvah in a photograph Mr. Rocha says was inspired by Tim Burton’s cinematic aesthetic.Credit…Braulio Rocha
Eliane Goldstein after her bat mitzvah. The photograph was inspired by a scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”Credit…Braulio Rocha
Tali Warshawsky on the day of her bat mitzvah. The light emanating from the book represents “God enlightening her with his words,” Mr. Rocha said.Credit…Braulio Rocha

“My job is to write with light,” he said, explaining his craft.

The son of a salesman and a hairdresser, Mr. Rocha said his childhood in a working-class neighborhood of Funchal, Madeira’s picturesque capital, was tumultuous. He said his father, who lost his journalism job after his newspaper shut down, was forced to sell building materials. He put on a suit and tie every day, and went to construction sites, uninvited, to peddle his wares. He was often rebuffed, and he took out his frustration, Mr. Rocha said, by lashing out and throwing plates.

Mr. Rocha’s maternal grandmother is Black, and he said he always felt “different” in majority white Madeira. “Other kids taunted me, ‘Go back to Africa,’” he said. He found refuge taking nature photographs.

His home environment took its toll and Mr. Rocha, once a straight-A student, eventually dropped out of high school, getting a job as a waiter.

“I had zero ambition,” he said. “I was living with my mom. I spent my money on clubbing, girls and going to the gym.”

But he said his life changed forever one late evening in summer 2012 when he was bringing plastic bottles to a recycling bin in back of the restaurant, saw a woman strolling by and raced to intercept her, inviting her to have dinner. Much to his surprise, the woman, Sonia Vieira Ganança, whose family had emigrated from Madeira to Montreal, returned the next day.

The two began dating, kept in touch remotely by Skype after she went home, and six months later, she asked him to move to Canada. He was so broke, he recalled, she paid for the $1,000 plane ticket.

Mr. Rocha posing Sean Rosen, 13, for a bar mitzvah portrait.Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

Mr. Rocha suddenly found himself braving a Quebec winter, jobless, isolated and unable to speak French. After an initially rocky adjustment, he proposed to Sonia at a teahouse, hiding a $150 ring in a teacup. He said he found a sense of purpose after Sonia’s aunt, who worked in the Shaar’s kitchen, helped get him the janitor job.

He felt immediately at home at the synagogue, he said, and was particularly drawn by the spiritual meaning of a bar or bat mitzvah, the rite of passage in which a boy or girl affirms a commitment to Judaism. He would sometimes pause from vacuuming to sit in the pews and listen, entranced, to Cantor Zelermyer’s haunting voice singing prayers.

“I am a baptized Catholic, but in a synagogue I feel a very strong connection, something talks to me,” he said.

It was while dusting the pews and observing bar mitzvah photographers at work that the idea first entered his head that photographing bar mitzvahs was his “destiny.”

“I would see the photographers standing too close to the bar mitzvah boy, and the voice in my head would be saying: ‘No, no, no, it’s all wrong. You have God giving you this light, and you aren’t doing anything with it,’” he recalled. “But I was the janitor, so I kept dusting.”

Then came the bris epiphany.

The grandmother was so delighted with the resulting moody, cinematic photos that she paid him $130 for the job, an improvement on his $10-an-hour janitor salary.

Emboldened, Mr. Rocha asked the synagogue’s management if he could shoot other events. Within two years, he was photographing weddings and bar mitzvahs, for as much as $8,000, and, for a while, changing afterward into his janitor’s uniform to scrub toilets. Sometimes he worked such long days he slept on a synagogue pew.

Mr. Rocha in the sanctuary of Shaar Hashomayim. Credit…Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

After word spread in the Jewish community about the janitor with the discerning eye, he had so many assignments that he retired his uniform, quitting his janitor job in 2019.

At a recent bar mitzvah photo session, Mr. Rocha effortlessly schmoozed the family and joshed with the pensive bar mitzvah boy to get him to smile. “So your dad doesn’t know that you steal his Scotch, eh?” he asked.

These days, Mr. Rocha, who has a 2-year old daughter,teaches bar mitzvah photography master classes to a 4,300-strong Facebook group. And now, when he enters the Shaar Hashomayim, former colleagues on the janitorial staff quip, “Hey Mr. C.E.O.!”

He feels so connected to Judaism that he considered converting, but has hesitated: “My family is very Catholic and I don’t think they’d be happy.” And old habits persist. Mr. Rocha frequently exclaims, “Jesus Christ, that shot is amazing!” when taking bar mitzvah photos in synagogue.

Whatever his religion, his career move was, in his view, divinely ordained.

“I feel so blessed for everything that has happened,” he said. “I see now that coming to Canada is God’s plan.”

“God communicates with me with light and shadows,” Mr. Rocha said. “My job is to write with light.”Credit…Barulio Rocha

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