At El Encuentro, Family Life Comes Full Circle

JDC Latin American Encuentro (GA) 2012; courtesy

by Talia Joseph

For any child, the story of how his/her parents met and the decisions that those parents subsequently made about where and how to raise their family are the things that become the cornerstones of that child’s identity. For me, my parents’ story involved a different country than the one I grew up in, linking me to another place and time. Little did I know I would face that history, in a vibrant celebration of Jewish life, in Quito, Ecuador, last month.

My father was born and raised in El Salvador to Jewish parents who were from the town of Strasbourg, France. My mother was born and raised in Manhattan; her father was American and her mother came from Strasbourg. Some time in 1976, my father was making a business trip to New York, and a French cousin of his (who coincidentally was my maternal grandmother’s best friend) suggested that he pay a visit to my mother’s family while he was there. Sure enough, he did – and he met my mother over dinner at my grandparents’ home. Soon, they were married; and my mother, who did not speak any Spanish at the time, moved to El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.

Most Salvadoran Jews (a community of 300 at its peak, and today nearly 200) had planned to stay in El Salvador throughout the unrest of the late 1970’s. However, with the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of community leader and honorary consul to Israel, Ernesto Liebes, in 1979, many decided to leave.

Some families went back to where they originally came from in Europe (mostly Germany and France), a few moved to Israel, some moved to other Latin American cities with larger Jewish communities (like Mexico City), and others, like my parents, moved to the States. Just three years after my parents had gotten married, they huddled into an armored car with my infant oldest sister for New York. There, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, our parents raised us – their three daughters.

It was always important to my dad that we stay connected to the community in El Salvador, that we loved where we were, and also respected where we came from. He passed away of a heart attack 14 years ago, and since then, nurturing the connection with the El Salvadoran community has become that much more important to me. Knowing this, JDC Entwine – the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s young adult engagement platform – invited me to join the young professionals group traveling to the 12th Latin American Encuentro (like the General Assembly here in the U.S.) in Quito.

A gathering of more than 500 Jews from 20 plus countries in Latin America and beyond, the Encuentro was a thrilling reflection of Jewish community life from Chile to Peru to Mexico. Organized by JDC for more than two decades, the Encuentro included seminar-style talks and discussions; innovative sessions on the use of new technologies for involving people in local community activities and fundraising; lectures on Jewish community history in Latin America; the continent’s socioeconomic landscape; as well as strategies to engage young Jews. The participants, from students to professionals well into their careers, worked in the private sector and also for JCCs and Jewish organizations.

During the first night of the conference, in a sea of hundreds of Latin American Jews, I saw a man giving me the “don’t-I-know-you?” look.

“Are you Jean-Paul Joseph’s daughter?” he asked.

I quickly recognized him as one of our family friends from the community in San Salvador. Both of our faces lit up and we gave each other the warmest hug. He pulled me through the crowd towards more friends from the community. Standing with them was the former Rabbi of the community, who officiated the wedding of my sister and brother-in-law four years ago at the San Salvador synagogue (the building that was my father’s childhood home before it became a synagogue). Within moments of seeing these familiar faces, I went from being an American traveling alongside a few peers to being a member of an integrated, global community.

Although my parents decided in 1979 to leave El Salvador, I was impressed to learn throughout the Encuentro just how many families, when faced with similar decisions across Latin America, decided to stay. Despite challenging political situations and shrinking communities, those Jewish families that stayed, I realized, have vibrant Jewish identities.

The young professionals I got to meet are all actively involved in their local Jewish cultural and sports centers (referred to as Hebraica, Club, and Hillel depending on the country), and many know each other from competing as kids in the Panamerican Maccabi Games and Leatid, JDC’s Jewish leadership training program. Almost everyone speaks Hebrew, and though most are not observant, they always eat at home on Friday nights for a family Shabbat. Most impressive was discovering that most of them will say that they feel Jewish before they feel whatever nationality they are.

The New York City metropolitan area is home to the largest Jewish community outside Israel, and I certainly recognize that the experience that I had growing up was very different than the experience the friends I made in Quito had as Jews growing up in Latin America. However, it was reassuring to discover that Jewish communities so physically far apart are still very closely connected and alike. Perhaps because of the obstacles the Latin American communities face, they work a little harder to maintain the very Jewish identities that in New York seem prevalent and easy to enrich.

The week in Quito – like my first trip to see JDC’s work in Cuba through JDC Entwine – was an incredible opportunity to develop an entirely new perspective and appreciation for the culture and community that is the setting of so much of my family history. I nurtured old family friendships from El Salvador, and at the same time, developed new and independent ones of my own with friends my age from Argentina to Venezuela to Brazil. The experience gave context to decisions my parents made for my family’s future before I was even born, brought to life stories told to me of another place and time – and most of all, made the memory of my father vibrant.

Talia Joseph, a marketing professional for the Ad Council and fiction writer, lives in New York City.