Chile’s Jewish heads embrace challenges of leadership

Zaliasnik, Agosin are country’s youngest Jewish community presidents, despite not being ‘professional Jews.'

March 4, 2011 01:41
4 minute read.
Gabriel Zaliasnik.

Gabriel Zaliasnik 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Gabriel Zaliasnik, the youngest-ever president of Chile’s Jewish community, and Shai Agosin, who will become the second-youngest when he takes over the reins from his colleague in a few months, were sitting in the lobby of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon and talking about how, at the ripe old age of 43, they already feel behind the times.

“Leaders are getting younger and younger around the world. Just look at Obama and Sarkozy and Netanyahu, the first time he was prime minister,” Agosin said. “They have more energy to give in our demanding times. Leaders don’t have to be young, but this is the way things work nowadays.”

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Zaliasnik, who is Agosins’s senior by a few months, agreed with his successor.

“With communications going so fast, you need to be in touch at every moment,” Zaliasnik said. “I feel we are already old when we meet with leaders of the youth movement. They see us as being old people.”

Of course, the two Jewish leaders, who are in Israel accompanying Chilean President Sebastián Piñera on a state visit, were probably exaggerating a little. At 43, they are without a doubt the babes of the Jewish world – most of the heads of Jewish communities around the world are in their 60s at least. But the point they were trying to make was that now more than ever, the ability to keep up with the breakneck pace dictated by constantly evolving technological tools has become an important, and perhaps even essential, leadership skill.

The paths Agosin and Zaliasnik took to become the official leaders of the organization that represents Chile’s 25,000 Jews are very different than that of their predecessors. Neither is a “professional Jew,” someone who came from within the community’s institutions.

Zaliasnik is the head of a law firm and Agosin is a former TV presenter who runs a marketing company. Both became involved in Jewish public life only after they succeeded in the private sector.

“In the past, to become the leader of the Jewish community, you had to make a career of it, be the head of a Jewish school for instance, and when you were 60 or 70, you were given the honor of becoming the head of the community,” Zaliasnik said. “But now, all that has changed.”

Although Jews make up less than 0.2 percent of the South American nation’s 17 million inhabitants, a disproportionate number of prominent businessman, politicians, artists and academics are members of the community.

Don Francisco, formerly Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld – who, for decades, has hosted Sabado Gigante, one of the Latin America’s most popular television shows – is just one example.

Another is billionaire businessman Leonardo Farcas Klein. At one point, some seven percent of Chilean voters said they would support the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania – who is famous for his philanthropy, blond curls and colorful suits – if he ran in the presidential elections.

Such polls beg the question recently raised in a New York Times profile piece: could Klein become the first Jewish president of Chile? “Klein is very popular but you need a few things to become the president,” Agosin said. “He has no political party.”

“Look behind us though,” he said, pointing toward a well-dressed woman sitting a few seats away in the lobby of the famous hotel. “That is Jewish Senator Lily Perez. I think she has a very promising career ahead of her.”

Zaliasnik, who is Klein’s lawyer, said he didn’t believe his client was neither interested nor suitable for the presidency.

“Klein is a very friendly person, but l think the current minister of the interior, Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who is Jewish, might be a candidate for that position one day,” he said.

While it may seem that the Jewish community is all powerful, there are limits to its clout. When it lobbied on behalf of Israel for the government not to recognize a Palestinian state earlier this year, it lost to the country’s much more numerous and arguably more powerful Palestinian community. Santiago, the country’s capital, eventually recognized an independent Palestinian state, but it did add caveats regarding the final-status borders aimed at appeasing Israel.

All things considered, Agosin and Zaliasnik believe that Chile has been good to its Jews.

“People in Chile think there are a million Jews in the country,” Agosin said. “I think it’s the feeling of being a minority, growing up different in a Catholic land.”

“To be truthful, we’ve seen this all over the Jewish world,” Zaliasnik opined. “Jews outperform and you see this time and again, like in the Nobel prizes, for instance. In my opinion, this is all to do with Jewish education, maybe with this notion of us being the people of the book.”

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