In Changing Latin America, Jewish Leaders Survey is Revealing

by Marcelo Dimentstein

Although we’re a quarter of the way through 2013, it’s already been a milestone year for Latin America: in March, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s President of 14 years succumbed to cancer. Only a few weeks later, the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was anointed as Pope Francis I, becoming the first Latin American pontiff in the process.

If the death of Chavez is symbolic of the political changes sweeping Latin America, then the election of Pope Francis stands as confirmation of the continent’s growing international importance and clout. However, economic uncertainties prevail and the increasingly fraught tensions between different models of governance are clear to any observer.

The continent’s 350,000 Jews are, much like everybody else, trying to figure out the long-term implications of these shifts. A survey of Latin American Jewish opinion leaders – including organizational executives, current and former board directors of communities, Rabbis from all denominations, school principals and educators, media editors and publishers, academics, and intellectuals – released by the JDC International Center for Community Development in 2012 demonstrates one very important point: the perception of key issues both in and outside the community is often determined by country of origin.

The responses from the 389 leaders from 20 countries produced some noteworthy disparities. For example, whereas 77 percent of Brazilian respondents believe that intermarriage represents a serious threat, only 19 percent of Mexicans feel the same. Those numbers reflect the fact that Mexico has one of the lowest levels of intermarriage for any Jewish community in the world; contrastingly, Brazil’s intermarriage rate has been estimated at 60 percent.

In Uruguay, only 7 percent of respondents believe that anti-Semitism is a serious threat, but that figure leaps to 58 percent for Venezuelan respondents. Again, local conditions explain the difference.

At the same time, there are commonalities across the region. Although respondents share the view that the Jewish population is decreasing with little prospect of further Jewish immigration to boost their numbers, in six countries – Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil – more than 80 percent of respondents said that the conditions for Jewish life were favorable.

For that stability to be maintained, the financial health of each community is key. Again, the general outlook is cautiously optimistic. In Argentina, which is home to nearly 200,000 Jews, making it the largest community on the continent, a clear majority of respondents remain positive, despite the country’s recent economic challenges and the still fresh memories of the grave 2001 financial crisis.

Asked whether their community was financially healthy, 29 percent of Argentinian respondents answered in the affirmative, while a further 37 percent said that the situation was manageable, if tough. In Brazil, the location of the second largest Jewish community on the continent, a full 46 percent of respondents asserted that the communal finances are healthy.

There is regional consensus, too, on priorities. The top five, in order, are: strengthening Jewish education (92 percent), supporting needy Jews in the community (87 percent), investing in leadership development (83 percent), strengthening the communal bonds of the secular young (82 percent) and supporting the State of Israel (77 percent.) The importance of Israel to Latin American Jews is further underlined by the fact that 89 percent of respondents felt that ties to Israel would either remain as strong as they are now, or become even stronger. When it comes to future planning in the Jewish community, the three main challenges identified by the respondents are: defining who is considered Jewish; decision-making procedures; and the relationship between lay leaders and professionals.

Finally, while the circumstances of each community is unique, a strong sense of regional solidarity prevails. Asked whether “Latin American Jews have a special responsibility to one another,” 80 percent of respondents answered ‘yes.’ In the times that lie ahead, that solidarity is arguably the most welcome indicator of the overall health of Jewish life in Latin America.

Marcelo Dimentstein, a social anthropologist, is Operations Director for JDC-ICCD.