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Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News February 2001

February 22, 2001


I would like to share with you the report given last week at the Foundation's Administrative Committee about the second Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship that the Foundation organized in Sao Paulo, Brazil on January 22 - 31, in cooperation with the Latin American Jewish Congress. This was the ninth Fellowship sponsored by the Foundation since 1987. Like all the previous Seminars, it was a marvelous experience for all who participated - - both faculty and Fellows. Let me briefly highlight the components of this successful endeavor.



A large part of the success was due to the extensive planning that preceded the Seminar. Last summer I visited with the South American Fellows from four countries - Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay-who attended previous Fellowships. Twenty six Fellows of the forty eight Nahum Goldmann Fellowship alumni from South America attended those meetings, a remarkable percentage, considering that most of the others were from smaller communities, far from the capital cities of the countries I visited. Remarkably, there was a significant convergence of views on most of the themes and issues to be discussed at the second Latin American Fellowship, and the program we organized was shaped by these recommendations.

I also met with the leaders of the central communal bodies of those countries and discussed their participation in identifying and recruiting Fellows, and hopefully finding a role for them in their respective communities when they return. Mailing lists of all the Jewish organizations in those countries were obtained, to whom materials were sent aimed at recruiting Fellows from across the whole range of Jewish life there. The Jewish media and internet sites of the other countries in Latin America were also sent materials for this purpose.

More than one hundred applications were received, of which forty were selected for the seminar from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.



The faculty included some of the world's finest Spanish-speaking scholars and thinkers including Professor Shalom Rosenberg, Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Hebrew University; Professor Haim Avni, the world's foremost expert on Latin American Jewry; Professor Manuel Tenenbaum, Executive Director of the Latin American Jewish Congress and Prof. Paul Warszaski. Other faculty and speakers included Dr. Felipe Yafe, Dean of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano; Dr. Stephen Bayme, the American Jewish Committee, New York City; Reena Rosenberg of Jerusalem, Rabbi Henry Sobel of Sao Paulo; Professor Jose Meiches, former President of the Confederacao Israelita do Brasil (CONIB); and Rabbi David Weitman, the chief Chabad representative in Sao Paulo.

The lectures and symposia dealt with Latin American Jewry: Perspectives and Dilemmas; The Ethical Foundations of Community; Jewish Culture in the Post-Holocaust Era; Raising and Shaping Jewish Consciousness; and the Challenges of Responsibilities of Jewish Leadership.

The central core of the program at this seminar, more than ever before, were the workshops and discussion groups. The workshops dealt with Jewish Texts, Jewish Identity, and the Jewish Community. A special workshop was held on Human Rights in Latin America: a Jewish Perspective. The discussion groups, led by the Fellows themselves covered What They Can Learn From Each Other, the Future of the Jewish Communities in Latin America, Working With the Non-Jewish Community and Engaging Themselves and Their Communities Jewishly.

The workshops and discussion groups, emphasizing the core of the Fellows' concerns and interests, which the planning process identified, provoked a wide-ranging interaction among the Fellows, and very significantly raised the intensity of the Fellows' sense of possession of, and involvement in the program.



The major component in the high level of success achieved at the second Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship was the Fellows themselves. As I indicated earlier, we could, more than at the first Latin American Seminar, make choices from a large and varied pool of applicants. And we did. Those selected were younger, more Jewishly educated, had achieved higher levels of general education, were at earlier stages of their community involvement, and were less skeptical and more idealistic than the previous Fellows at Latin American Nahum Goldmann I. In the words of Dr. Felipe Yafe, who has extensive experience with Latin American Jewry, they were "shufra d'shufra", the very best.

Twenty five percent of the Fellows were from small, isolated or dispersed Jewish communities in Latin America, including Cordoba, La Plata, Rosario, Bahia Blanca, Argentina; Campinas, Brazil; Camaguey, Cuba; and Lima, Peru. These Fellows provided a poignant portrait of Jewish life in the hinterlands of South America and the problems and challenges they face.

Let me cite two examples of Fellows from these communities who deeply impacted this seminar. Reina Roffe from Camaguey, Cuba, is the second Fellow to represent Camaguey at the Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship. She told us about the harsh years of both repression and hunger in Cuba. Religious life - Jewish or otherwise was impossible. Bereft of their material needs, this Jewish community of 100 souls, who knew almost nothing about Jewish life, decided to turn inward to their distant roots for their spiritual sustenance. Reina Roffe reported that they are still struggling to revive their social and religious life, a herculean task for them.

Sara Bechar, the former President of the Camaguey community, attended Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship I. Sandra Lindenberg of Caracas, another Fellow who participated in both Latin American seminars, agreed, at our initiative, to visit Cuba several years ago with several colleagues from Caracas to help them celebrate the Passover holiday. She has continued her contacts with the Camaguey community to this day. Argentinean Fellows put Sara in touch with the Joint in Buenos Aires, and financial and other forms of help are now being provided by them and other American and international Jewish organizations.

We have agreed to help Reina improve her educational skills by studying outside of Cuba. We are also helping her to obtain educational materials in Spanish with the assistance of the Fellows from the other South American Jewish communities.

The second example is Avraham Szulacki of La Plata, Argentina, the polar opposite of Camaguey. According to Avraham, La Plata, once a vibrant Jewish community of 2500 with an active communal life, has declined to a point where organized life has almost ceased to exist. Almost single-handedly, he helped reopen the synagogue and is now trying to organize new activities for the children and young people and revive Jewish life there.

These two young leaders characterize the grit and determination of the Fellows to keep their communities alive.



The overall impact of this extraordinary meeting was the optimism it generated. During the final days of the seminar, the Fellows talked passionately of their plans, individually and collectively, for the future, and sought ways to work together to achieve these aims. Their commitment, dedication, idealism and focus make you believe that, despite the overwhelming problems of their communities, the acute crises in their societies, and the limited resources at their disposal, they will, nonetheless, prevail, if their communities and others, including us, can find ways to support them.

These thirty six Fellows (the same mystical number in Jewish tradition as the thirty six righteous who sustain the world) also provide us with new windows into the inner world and dynamic of Latin American Jewish life. Their perceptions differ considerably from the conventional views of the established organized community.

But these young people also reflect the long-held belief of the elders of their communities that World Jewry is not interested in the Latin American Jewish Community. The current reality and the historical record, in their view, support their perception. But they see themselves as branches of the global Jewish Community, and they should be supported.

We need to be attentive to what they are feeling and saying, for they will determine whatever future Latin American Jewry will have.

For this reason the Foundation can take great pride in the achievements of the Second Latin American Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, the most successful to date of the nine seminars we have organized around the world.

Warm regards and best wishes for a joyous Purim.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President