Latin America's new Jewish beat

New initiatives implemented to rekindle Jewish life in Argentina.

Latin american jewish children 521 (photo credit: ROI COMMUNITY)
Latin american jewish children 521
(photo credit: ROI COMMUNITY)
Waking up on a Sunday morning in Rio de Janeiro, like thousands of other young Brazilians, Fabiana Kaczelnik is spoiled for choice between the golden beaches on offer.
Instead, she turns away from the sundrenched seaside and heads off to the favelas, the crime-ridden giant slums of Rio, where the government stays away and gangs fight for territory.
Every week, Kaczelnik volunteers her time tutoring underprivileged children who have little access to formal education. Many never make it to regular school because they are simply not enrolled.
“If everyone acted like us, the world would be better,” she tells The Jerusalem Report.
Kaczelnik, a fashion industry executive whose mother is not Jewish, attended a Jewish school in Rio and was a member of the Habonim Dror youth movement. Since 2008, she has been a key activist in the city’s Hillel, where she is a coordinator of the Child in Motion program in which volunteers help out at favela community centers teaching and playing with children up to age 12.
In Mexico, photographer Loren Michan is preparing a book to coincide with the 100th anniversary in 2012 of the 40,000-strong Jewish community, which chronicles the activities of 100 Jewish charitable projects that benefit the wider society.
“The Mexican Jewish community is very close-knit and maintains its values,” Michan tells The Report. “The biggest challenge is to show all that to the greater society, to generate stronger and closer ties with Mexican society. I want to fight the idea, both inside and outside the Jewish community, that Mexican Jews only help other Jews.”
One of those projects is Deport-es para Compartir, a play on words meaning “sports to share” and also “sports are for sharing.”
Founded in 2007 by Dina Buchbinder Auron, it is a civic and educational program that teaches children about values and important global issues through games and sports. Over 32,500 boys and girls have participated to date.
“I want to show that Jews do not do things just for Jews. If society as a whole manages to experience our solidarity, if we are open to all and make them part of what we give, then we will fight anti-Semitism” Buchbinder tells The Report.
Her efforts appear to be paying off. In 2009, she was selected by the International Youth Foundation as a Youth Action Net Fellow. She has also been invited to be a member of the World Jewish Diplomatic Corps.
Alan Lewy is putting new gasoline into Jewish life in Venezuela through Kesher, a a network for business people. Lewy says the aim of this and other projects is to “reconnect people who do not participate and prevent further reduction of the number of active young Jews.”
Young dynamos
These were just some of the dynamic young people who gathered in Buenos Aires for the first meeting in Latin America of the ROI Community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs in 40 countries who are creating new ways to connect to Jewish life and culture.
ROI stands for Return on Investment, but not in the pure economic sense. The idea is that these young people, many of whom have participated in Birthright or other programs, are now returning the investment that was made in them by helping to revitalize Jewish life in their home communities.
“We brought together activists and leaders from large and small communities. In just five days, there was a sense that the Latin American Jewish world grew more closeknit, because the meeting strengthened the ties and the projects from throughout the continent, in areas such as culture, Israel advocacy, and social activism – not only within but also outside the Jewish community,” says Justin Korda, executive director of ROI Community.
“There was an amazing willingness to expand horizons and networks, to create new partnerships, to share resources and to expand the scope,” Korda tells The Report.
ROI Community has established a $100,000 fund offering micro-grants to projects it believes can impact the Jewish world.
“ROI members are young, high-impact change agents who span the globe,” says Korda. “The ROI Community Micro Grants Fund is an innovative philanthropic tool, leveraging small amounts of money at a critical time in the development of these early- to mid-career adults and their initiatives. In the coming years, our goal is to invest hundreds of $1,000 grants to create ripples of change among one million young Jewish adults, who are looking for creative entry points into Jewish life.”
ROI Community was founded in 2005 as a joint project of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Taglit- Birthright Israel, the project that has brought more than 300,000 young Jews on short trips to Israel since it was founded in 2000.
“We need a Jewish Spring that transforms the Jewish world into a more inclusive and welcoming home for anyone who wants to be Jewish,” says Lynn Schusterman.
Some of the projects backed by ROI also help the next generation maintain the Israel- Diaspora relationship. TrailTalks, founded by Natalie Gourvich, encourages young Israelis trekking through Latin America to engage with the local people and others they meet on their travels. About 30 percent of the approximately 40,000 Israeli backpackers that travel abroad every year go to Latin America.
“Next year we are hoping to bring 5,000- 10,000 young Israeli travelers into our network by developing partnerships and running workshops through a variety of organizations including the alumni networks of the IDF, Taglit, and Lametayel,” says Gourvich, who grew up in New York as the daughter of Israeli parents, studied at Oxford University and then traveled extensively in Latin America. She hopes that TrailTalks will provide Israeli backpackers with the skills, knowledge and motivation to connect more effectively with people from other nationalities and cultures.
There are some 400,000 Jews in Latin America, spread among the different countries, which all face unique challenges.
In Chile, Maximilano Grass, founder of the Jewish Students Federation, is reaching out to Chile’s “invisible Jews.” The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is a big issue here, where just 20,000 Jews live alongside an émigré Palestinian population estimated at 500,000,considered the largest community outside the Arab world. Under his leadership, Chilean Jewish youth have formed a coalition with the GLBT community, the Chilean native Indians known as Mapuche and other immigrant communities to combat discrimination.
Great resource
“The network of activists developed in the Iberoamerican gathering has turned out to be a great resource for information about what is going on in regards to Jewish communities and activism in Latin America,” says Grass.
“Knowing that there is a support network distributed all over the continent that one can access when trying to develop projects with high impact is very reassuring. It has also been useful for considering new projects that could be developed between countries.”
Argentinian Evelyn Goldfinger is the creator of El Toratron, a Jewish Education Theater ensemble that brings to life Biblical characters, teachings and legacy.
She performed at the ROI Iberoamerican opening and in May completed a 13-day tour of the United States.
“I see with hope the openness to global culture,” says Goldfinger. “This doesn’t have to do with assimilation or loss of the Jewish self but with a desire of incorporating more Jewish flavor into everyday life. It has to do with using technology to promote videos about Hanukka, creating Torah commentary sites online, hip music with Jewish themes, and much more. I see young Jews reconnecting with their traditions, attending synagogues with different denominations simultaneously just because they want to experience diverse things in different Jewish institutions, cultivating their love for Israel, and taking a lot of chances in dialogue.”
She says she was about to give up the theater group because it was too hard to keep it alive. Her participation in an ROI Community summit in 2008 secured her a grant that saved it.
“I felt really alone. I was fighting for something that everyone seemed to like and enjoy but no local organization would support it. This is a great and innovative program where Jewish children of every denomination can learn about Torah, Jewish life and values through performing arts,” she says.
“I felt recognized as a Jewish innovator and that what I do and believe in really matters,” she says of the 2008 ROI gathering.
“After I came back, I had renewed strength and a network that supported me and luckily I decided to give my program another powerful chance. Three years later El Toratrón is alive and well, many institutions and individuals recommend our work and more than 10,000 children, educators and adults in general have been engaged in our program.”
The communities of Latin America seem to be finding their place on the international Jewish agenda.
In December 2011, B’nai B’rith held an international policy conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, the organization’s first international event ever held in Latin America. The Jewish Agency Board of Governors met in late November in Argentina, the first time in 15 years it has met outside Israel. Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky recently announced a $1 million fund to strengthen the connection between young Jews in Latin America and Israel and the global Jewish community.
“The Jewish world in the US, Israel and Europe has neglected Latin American Jewry for many years but, today, in a globalized world, those communities have been able to see with their own eyes that in Latin America almost 400,000 Jews have done a lot and are working very hard for Jewish continuity, Jewish identity and its links with Israel,” says Eduardo Kohn, the Latin America Director of B’nai B’rith.