Fanning the Flames of Latin American Jewish Life

by Fernando Lapiduz

My life began in Rosario, Argentina’s second most important city, located 300 kilometers from Buenos Aires on the expansive Parana River. A city which boasts a preponderance of neoclassical architecture and is a sister city to Haifa, it is where my Jewish family, second generation Argentinians, made their home.

I would characterize the home I grew up in as a place where tradition was respected, but where Jewish observance was minimal. Nonetheless, my family fostered in me a deep love for the Jewish people and our culture. And that love kindled a spark of sorts inside me.

But it was not until I attended a Jewish school for the first time, and afterwards prepared my Bar Mitzvah, that spark grew into a flame and I began to realize my desire to be a guide and leader in the Jewish community.

That’s why I started to formally study our history and traditions, focusing on the religious aspects of Jewish civilization. With an eye to becoming a hazzan first, and a rabbi later on, I joined the choir of the Synagogue of Rosario. Amidst this community of approximately 8,000 Jews, I sang for 10 years and was a soloist for most of those years. In the 1990s, I began my studies and was later ordained a hazzan.

Enmeshed in Rosario’s Jewish religious life, I served as the main hazzan, performing all the religious services. With very deep pride, I officiated hundreds of marriages and funerals, trained and prepared the b’nei mitzvah, and conducted all the ceremonies making up the life of our community.

After the departure of our Rabbi and for 5 years thereafter, I served as Community Director, performing most of the functions of a rabbi and also those of a hazzan. I felt I reached the pinnacle of my Jewish experience. And then something even more life-changing occurred, something that would stoke that flame inside me into a fire: I was contacted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee or as it’s known to us in Latin America, “the Joint,” with an offer to work in the Jewish Community of Cuba.

From January 2007 until the end of 2009, together with my dear wife Patricia, I lived in Cuba and helped provide a plethora of religious, cultural, and humanitarian services to the community, while at the same time serving as the Joint’s Representatives on the lush, Caribbean Island. From Shabbat dinners to educational classes … from b’nei mitzvah training to youth groups, we helped ensure a Jewish future for a community that is proud and ever-growing.

Carrying the unique beat of Jewish life in Cuba with me, I journeyed on, perhaps now more introspective. I was given a new opportunity to further build my Jewish identity, but this time on a personal and professional level. It came in the form of a program called Leatid.

Leatid is an exclusive educational and training space for professionals and volunteer leaders of Jewish communities in Latin America. It, too, is run by the Joint. It offers attendees the necessary tools, resources, and content to effectively and strategically run a Jewish community. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, it helped form a network of Jewish professionals who could exchange stories about our successes and challenges. That way, we could enrich each other with experiences from the different Latin American countries where we lived and worked.

Over those two years of Leatid, I had the opportunity to attend several seminars in other Latin American countries, as well as to participate in distance learning courses from Cuba. And while the resources I acquired over that period of time were essential for my community activity in Havana, they provided me with a wide range of possibilities in order to improve myself professionally and personally in the mid and long term. And little did I know at the time that my long-term would include my current job as the community director and spiritual leader of El Salvador’s Jewish community.

It’s been a long, enriching, and leap-frogged journey from my days in Rosario. My curiosity about Jewish life, at first nothing more than an ember, gave way to dreams of leading my people, whether as a rabbi, a hazzan, or as a communal professional. And today I do all that, and more, as a father to my son Eliel, who represents a new generation for the Jewish people, whether in Rosario, San Salvador, or anywhere in the Jewish world.

Fernando Lapiduz is community director of El Salvador’s Jewish community.