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Across Latin America, Jewish Life Is a Challenge in Small Communities

This article is reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit www.jta.org.

ANTIGUA GUATEMALA, Guatemala, Nov. 4 (JTA)--Young leaders in small Jewish communities throughout Latin America feel a great responsibility to preserve Jewish life in their hometowns--and they're worried about the future.

These youths, together with young people from larger communities like Buenos Aires, came together in this town 30 miles outside Guatemala City as part of the Ninth Meeting of Leaders of Latin American and Caribbean Jewish Institutions and Communities.

The meeting, sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, ran from Oct. 30-Nov. 2.

Of the nearly 600 lay leaders, rabbis, educators and volunteers from 22 countries who gathered to share ideas, about 100 were under age 30.

At a time when Latin America's economic problems have caused many Jews to leave for Israel, the United States and other places, young people said they are concerned about maintaining what's left of their Jewish communities.

Daniel Cahen, from San Salvador, El Salvador, where there are about 60 Jewish families, said he doesn't know if he'll find a Jewish woman to marry.

"I'm worried for myself and my future," said Cahen, 27. "I want my kids to be Jewish."

His concerns echo those of young people across the region.

Each Latin American country has distinct political and economic circumstances--making life for a Jew in Monterrey, Mexico, quite different than for one in Havana, for example--the small communities throughout the region face similar struggles.

Many of the young people from small Jewish communities grew up in places where there weren't always rabbis and where it could be difficult to connect with other Jews or follow Jewish traditions.

Some of them are working to change that.

Here in Guatemala, where there are about 250 Jewish families, it was common for young adults to disconnect from the community after graduating from high school, youth leaders said.

Three years ago, a group of young people started the Jewish University Students of Guatemala. The group includes people between the ages of 18 and 30 who aren't necessarily students.

Joe Kaire, president of the group, spoke about his organization during the conference.

"We didn't have a place to keep developing our Jewish identity," Kaire, 25, told the audience. "Now we do, but it's a slow process."

It's hard to form a community, he said, because so many young Jews go to college outside Guatemala City--either elsewhere in Guatemala or in the United States.

Those who stay don't necessarily join the students group. That worries the group's president-elect, Joseph Mejia.

"We need to unify the community of young people," Mejia, 21, said. "If not, we're going to lose the customs."

It's not always easy to live a Jewish life in Guatemala, Mejia and Kaire agreed.

"In Mexico, if you want to keep kosher you have several restaurants to choose from. If you don't keep kosher in Mexico, it's because you don't want to," Kaire said. "But here, it's very difficult."

Even though Mexico has 50,000 Jews, the overwhelming majority are in Mexico City. Outside the capital, the communities are small and isolated--more similar in some ways to Guatemala City than to Mexico City.

Eduardo Berner is from Monterrey, a city of more than 3 million people--including some 120 Jewish families--in northern Mexico.

He said that nearly every Jewish person he knows, including his father and uncles, has had to go to Mexico City to find a Jewish spouse. He probably will do the same, said Berner, a 23-year-old student.

Maintaining a community of young Jews in Monterrey is a challenge because many young people go to college in the United States, he said.

"I don't know what the solution is," Berner said.

Young Jewish leaders shouldn't feel discouraged when efforts to fortify their communities fall short of their goals, Israeli scholar and author Gustavo Perednik said at a panel discussion.

"It's not about how many people you bring together, but the quality of the gatherings," Perednik said.

Mirna Szulmajster, coordinator of the conference's youth program, said in an interview that she sees potential in Latin America's young Jewish leaders.

"I'm very optimistic," said Szulmajster, who works in the JDC's Buenos Aires office. "I see concern, not indifference, in these young people. And with this concern comes the desire to make change."

According to Bertha Delgado Farin, 23, of Santiago de Cuba, the challenge on her island is how to revitalize a Jewish community that was dormant for years.

After the Cuban revolution in 1959, about 90 percent of Cuba's Jews left for economic reasons, and Jewish life in the country further dwindled after the government began discouraging religious practice.

There still is no permanent rabbi in Cuba, but Jewish life is thriving again. The synagogue in Santiago de Cuba, located more than 500 miles from Havana on the southwestern part of the island, was rededicated in 1995 after having been closed for 16 years.

Delgado Farin did not learn she was Jewish until she was 12. She remembers her mother lighting a small candle each Friday night, but she didn't know why. Now she attends synagogue on Fridays and studies Torah on Saturdays.

She said she worries about how to get those younger than her involved in the community. Intermarriage also is an issue, she noted, since there are only about a dozen Jews between the ages of 13 and 30 in Santiago de Cuba.

Though her own husband is not Jewish, Delgado Farin says she is determined to provide a Jewish upbringing for their daughter, Sophia, 2.

"We have a lot to learn about Judaism," she said. "But every day I'm determined to learn more--and I feel extremely, extremely proud to be Jewish.''

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.

Corrie MacLaggan is a freelance journalist.

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