Kehila Latina: Bringing Jerusalem's Latino immigrants together

This month, Kehila Latina is celebrating its second anniversary. This past November, the group had a special event at the Nefesh B’Nefesh center in Jerusalem

 KEHILA LATINA members from various countries unite in Jerusalem with Rabbi Richard Kaufmann (C).  (photo credit: Iosef Rivera)
KEHILA LATINA members from various countries unite in Jerusalem with Rabbi Richard Kaufmann (C).
(photo credit: Iosef Rivera)

They may come from a variety of countries, but the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking community of Kehila Latina has found that a common language and a love for Israel have knitted them into a supportive group with distinctive Spanish overtones.

This month, Kehila Latina is celebrating its second anniversary. Based in Jerusalem, the community celebrated a Torah dedication ceremony this past fall, marching with the scroll through the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem to the Eretz Hemdah center in Katamon, where they hold Shabbat services. Participants hail from Argentina, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and a variety of Central and South American countries.

“About a year ago, I was asked to speak at the first Shabbaton organized by Kehila Latina. Then I participated in a Shavuot study night. Shortly after, the Kehila board contacted me about a permanent role, and here I am.”

Rabbi Richard Kaufmann

“About a year ago, I was asked to speak at the first Shabbaton organized by Kehila Latina,” recalled Rabbi Richard Kaufmann, who serves as spiritual leader of the community. “Then I participated in a Shavuot study night. Shortly after, the Kehila board contacted me about a permanent role, and here I am.”

Born in Uruguay, Kaufmann came to Israel 32 years ago and considers it a privilege to help fellow Latino-Israelis who have arrived recently. “On one hand, Israel is a much wealthier and more developed country, with greater resources and infrastructure. On the other hand, Israel is also a more expensive country, in which buying a house for a young couple is much more difficult than it was 25 or 30 years ago,” he pointed out. 

Nevertheless, he said Israel offers a good life for olim (immigrants) from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking lands. “People here have employment opportunities and can have a very good standard of living with good health care and education. This is the best country in the world in which every Jew can find his place and really feel at home.”

 KEHILA MEMBERS participating in a Hachnasat Sefer Torah through Jerusalem to inaugurate a Torah scroll in the community’s new home. (credit: Iosef Rivera) KEHILA MEMBERS participating in a Hachnasat Sefer Torah through Jerusalem to inaugurate a Torah scroll in the community’s new home. (credit: Iosef Rivera)

How did Kehila Latina start?

Eliezer Gurevich, director of Kehila Latina, concurred. He and his friend Nicolas Pergierycht initiated the community in 2021. “It started at a Shabbat meal, “ he told In Jerusalem. “The coronavirus crisis and the impossibility of traveling meant many olim spent Shabbat alone,” he lamented. “We saw a need and began to form a minyan and have Shabbat dinners.” 

The response was bigger than they anticipated and inspired them to schedule additional events.

TODAY, KEHILA Latina has weekly Torah classes for the general public, a women’s class, game night, movie night, hikes, a Kabbalat Shabbat minyan every Friday evening, and one Shabbaton per month, which includes all meals and prayer services.

Abigail Barrios from Bolivia said that when she first moved to Israel, she was concerned that she would not find her community. To her pleasant surprise, she found not only Kehila Latina but also many welcoming synagogues and individuals. Barrios has now become a regular at Kehila Latina.

This past November, the group had a special event at the Nefesh B’Nefesh center in Jerusalem. The event was a welcome affair at Nefesh B’Nefesh, which was founded by Americans with a focus mainly on assisting immigrants from the US and Canada. 

“This event was very important to us,” Gurevich said. “We were able to make ourselves known to many more people, and Rabbi Kaufmann was officially introduced as the rabbi of the Kehila and our spiritual guide.” A Jerusalem deputy mayor spoke at the event, in addition to Nefesh B’Nefesh representatives and Kehila Latina members.

Rabbi Kaufmann sees his work with the community as a mission to help immigrants and guide others interested in making aliyah. “We have to lay the ground, the community and social framework to receive them and help them to have a successful aliyah,” he said. 

He estimates that about 160,000 Israelis from Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries live in Israel, although some say that the number is almost 200,000, taking into account the children of olim born in Israel.

“All new immigrants are challenged to adjust to the country, to Israelis, and to aspects that differ from their countries of origin,” Kaufmann said. “Many comment that they miss Sunday as a day off or having other comforts that they had in their countries of origin.

“On the other hand, I think that everyone agrees that it is a safe country, where people are not afraid of being robbed or assaulted in the middle of the street; where children and young people can move freely.

“Latino communities are Zionist by nature, and people who seek to lead a richer and more complete Jewish life come to Israel because they see our country as ‘the place.’”

Gurevich, who came to Israel from Argentina in 2018, said, “Each person comes to Israel for different reasons. I came because I think it is the ideal place to raise a Jewish family. I had come to Israel several times before I made aliyah, and I feel a special connection with this land. Although sometimes it is not easy to live here, it is worth it.

“I don’t think the main reason people come is to escape antisemitism. In many places in Latin America, Jews prosper and have nice communities.” 

He cited economic concerns as being more pressing than Judeo-phobia. “Many Argentines have gone abroad in recent years due to the economic crisis, and the Jews mostly choose Israel.”

Making a new home in your homeland means both adapting to Israeli culture and bringing a slice of your birth country with you. As a result, several Latin-American-style restaurants have opened in Jerusalem in recent years.

“Many of us are frequent customers of Pepitos, Tacos Luis and Quesadillas Asencio,” Gurevich said. Today, one can get empanadas in Mahaneh Yehuda; Brazilian meat, alfajores, and other specialties in restaurants or through catering services.

“The experience of having a congregation from so many countries is really a novelty and a highly enriching experience for everyone,” Kaufmann noted. “As rabbi of the Kehila, it inspires me and really fills my soul to see how Jews from so many countries come together to pray, eat and sing together.”

Gurevich observed that the community is not just a place to make friends, learn and have a good time. “For us, Kehila Latina is a channel for blessings, and being able to see that blessing personally inspires me. There are people who found an apartment, got a job and even got engaged.

“When we see all the good that having a community framework generates, it motivates us to continue growing.” ❖

To contact Kehila Latina, email [email protected] or WhatsApp 058-789-7119.