How Do You Say ‘Yasher Koach’ in Spanish?

by Joy Galam and Julie Wyler

If we had two words to describe the 43 Latin American Jews, hailing from 15 different countries, that we met during the ROI Ibero-American Gathering in Buenos Aires, it would have to be humor and diversity. Humor because oh-my-gosh was the group funny, and diversity because of the diversity – both of the participants and their projects – that we were surprised to encounter during the four days in Buenos Aires.

So back to humor. Was there humor! Each participant had jokes about the other and his country of origin. Being from Europe, we are used to the French joking about the Swiss, and the Swiss lashing out on the Belgians, but these jokes were not only country specific, they were Jewish! One ROI member who got a plateful was Erik. Erik is from Bolivia, where the small Jewish community is made up of only 120 souls. “Who will Erik send his Rosh HaShana cards to this year? To himself! There are no other Jews!” or “Erik is a great multi-tasker, at his own Brit Mila he was the Mohel and the Sandak!”

Being new immigrants to Israel ourselves, we are familiar with both the feeling of being Jewish in sometimes very small communities around the world, and being Jewish in Israel, where everyone around you is Jewish, and the challenges we face are not only on a micro, community level, but on a national and even international level. Also being involved in two, very Israeli projects ourselves (Gvahim, that helps qualified olim from around the world realize their professional aspirations in Israel, and Tebeka, that provides free, accessible legal aid and advocacy services and community development opportunities to the Ethiopian Israeli population), it was particularly interesting to see how each project represented at the gathering addressed specific needs identified in each, very particular Jewish community across the 15 countries represented.

Indeed, from Mexico down to Argentina via Brazil, we realized that there really is no such thing as a “typical Latin American Jewish community”. The diverse ideas discussed reflected the complexities of Jewish communities across South America. Ronit (Costa Rica) and Denise (Uruguay) identified intermarriage as a central challenge in their communities and thus focus their efforts towards creating a framework for Jewish singles to mingle and increase their sense of belonging to the community. Whereas Maximiliano (Chile) channels his efforts towards public diplomacy and Hasbara for university students to counter the de-legitimization activities, frequent in Chile, a country in which the largest population of Palestinians reside (outside of the territories), Loren and Orly, both from Mexico, work towards increasing Jewish involvement in non-Jewish causes and bettering the overall image of the Jewish community in Mexico.

But it’s not always easy to have a broad impact. Maximiliano (Chile) spoke about the internal politics between the Jewish communities in Chile that make it difficult to cooperate and have a national impact. It was also surprising to see that the five young Jewish leaders from such a small community as the one of Montevideo (Uruguay) that counts a mere 10,000 Jews met for the first time at the ROI gathering. This serves to show how relevant ROI gatherings and summits are – they bring together people working in the same sector, sometimes even in the same city, and encourages them to collaborate.

Back in Israel, the complex realities of our community here and the challenges it faces hit us hard. Yet we our hearts are still singing Latin American songs learned at ROI and we feel grateful for such an enriching experience that allowed us to catch a glimpse of the ins and outs of 15 very different South American Jewish communities, all in just four short inspiring days. Gracias!

Joy Galam is Program Director for the Gvahim Young Leaders program. Julie Wyler is Director of Resource Development and International Relations at Tebeka. Both Joy and Julie are European Olot, fluent Spanish speakers and members of the ROI Community.