By Cindy Sher, JUF News Managing Editor
(July 30, 2009) -- Working within the Federation system, the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel—the two overseas arms of the Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF/JF)—and Latin American Hillels perform outreach in Jewish communities around Latin America. World
ORT is also a beneficiary of JUF overseas dollars through the United Jewish Communities.
The JDC provides training in Latin America to enhance local infrastructure, programs, and community planning. The overseas arm has operated in Argentina since World War II and was able to spearhead an immediate, comprehensive network of critical programs following the economic collapse in 2001 in Argentina. Spillover from the crisis has affected neighboring Uruguay as well. Together with JDC, a program called Tzedaka-Uruguay adapted programs and models in Argentina to address critical need among local Jews, with input from JUF.
The JUF/JF has had a strong relationship with Latin America, especially Buenos Aires, for more than two decades. The JUF/JF has provided ongoing assistance through the JDC and JAFI and special assistance during the difficult times faced by the Jewish community following the terrorist attacks of 1992 and 1994 and the economic upheaval of 2001.
There are both ongoing professional and lay connections to the community, and JUF/JF professionals have shared their knowledge and experience with Buenos Aires Jewish community professionals.
Jorge Schulman, associate director of the JDC’s Latin American office in Buenos Aires, speaks to how the Jews of Argentina have fared since the 2001 crisis. “Some people are doing well, and some that failed during the crisis in 2001 are today self-sufficient again,” he said. “However, there were a [large] number people that were over 50 during the crisis and couldn’t get back into their jobs. The regular caseload of the community was 4,500 beneficiaries and today there are more than 12,000. This put the community under pressure.”
The Jewish Agency for Israel focuses its work in Latin America on immigration issues, Jewish and Israel education, and aliyah.
Jewish life on campus thrives in Latin America as well. Gabriel Trajtenberg founded Hillel Argentina in 2002, following the Argentine economic collapse. Then, three years ago, he became regional director of Latin American Hillels, which encompasses Argentina, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In total, Latin American Hillels reaches out to 15,000-20,000 South American Jewish students.
The JUF/JF also has a close working partnership with the Latin American Jewish community. “The relationship between this Federation and Jewish communities in Latin America has developed from a recognition that despite differences in language, we do share many values in common including our commitment to Israel and desire for strong local Jewish communities, and that we can both learn from and help one another,” said Peter Friedman, executive vice president of Planning & Allocations for JUF/JF.
Last year, JUF provided Latin American Hillels with a three-year $84,000 grant aimed at providing services and connecting North American Jewish student visitors (estimated at 2,000 annually) to the organized local Jewish community when they are visiting/studying in Argentina, and connecting them to their Jewish community when they return from their travels. As a result of this grant, a guide for Jewish travelers studying abroad in Argentina was produced in English to facilitate outreach, and The Hillels of Illinois has arranged for students to visit during semester break periods.
JUF News spoke with Trajtenberg about his work with Jewish students at Latin American Hillels.
JUF News: You created Hillel Argentina in the wake of the first economic crisis in Argentina in 2001. Why did you create it?
Gabriel Trajtenberg: We founded it to create seeds of hope among the younger generation during the Argentina crisis.
Q. What is the mission of Latin American Hillels?
A. We follow the mission of Hillel International. We try to expose to the young generation to meaningful Jewish experience to ensure Jewish continuity among the young generation.
Q. What sort of programming do you offer?
A. We have everything. We have activities, Jewish learning, culture, holiday celebrations, we have complementary Jewish education from the universities, we help students compete in the labor market. Because we are not on campus, our Hillel center is very much like a JCC would be in the United States. We are not a religious organization. We don’t have, for instance, Shabbat services because we are not competing with the area synagogues. We have a lot of activities from Monday thru Friday and Sunday, but on Shabbat most of our students are with their families because most are commuter students.
Q. I know your Hillels do a lot of tzedakah work. Tell me about it and why that’s important to you.
A. We focus a lot on tzedakah activities. We opened a new division in the Latin American region called “Hillel Latin America Tzedek Corps” with the intention of bringing together students from all the regions to do tikun olam. It’s a way that we integrate students, we celebrate Jewish identity, and we are focusing on our identity and our mission of the Jewish people—tikun olam and gemilut hasadim.
Q. What sort of Israel programming do you offer throughout the Hillel regions?
A. We have a strong [component] in our Hillels on advocacy and we have strong activist leaders on behalf of Israel. In each city, they have their own identity according to the Jewish community’s reality. In Argentina, we’re more focused on the media, trying to explain to the journalists what is going on in Israel. In Brazil, our Hillel in Rio de Janeiro led a rally against President Ahmadinejad and he canceled his trip to Brazil. In Uruguay, we do a lot of Israel advocacy and education. Our communities are very Zionist so Israel advocacy is one of our main focuses. We also send people to Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel.
Q. Why are you so passionate about working with young Jewish college students?
A. Working today, we are impacting the future. This is our chance to provide Jewish education to the young generation. After 20 years of going to the Jewish day school or high school and then they come to us, we are their last chance to engage their Jewish identity. What we do today impacts their future. It’s tough work, but it’s very exciting.
Reprinted with permission from the JUF News.