Viva Limmud Latin America!
[To celebrate Limmud’s 35th year, eJewishPhilanthropy is offering a look into Jewish communities around the world through the eyes of Limmud volunteers. Limmud, the global grassroots Jewish learning movement founded in the United Kingdom in 1980, is today in 80 communities and 40 countries on six continents.
Limmud – or, more accurately in Spanish, Limud – is igniting Spanish-speaking communities across Latin America. Limud Chile launched in June; Uruguay is holding its second annual learning festival on September 6; and Limud Bogota, in Colombia, is set to debut in February 2016. In this article, we take an in-depth look at three Limud communities: Buenos Aires, Mexico and Peru.]
Limud Buenos Aires: The Trailblazer
By Patricia Kahane
In 2006, I went to my first Limmud in the UK to assess its value for Latin America. I had low expectations. I was already quite steeped in all things Jewish, what with working at the JDC and coming from Argentina, with its rich, heterogeneous Jewish community. What, I wondered, could Limmud add? I returned captivated.
Argentina’s Jewish community began 150 years ago when Baron Maurice de Hirsch funded agricultural colonies for Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms in Eastern Europe. Thus, the Jewish gauchos, cowboys, were born. The last wave of Jewish immigration included refugees from Nazism. By 1960, 300,000 Jews lived here.
That was a period of growth across Argentina. Jews felt secure, with sport clubs, cultural organizations, synagogues, formal and non-formal educational, relief and philanthropic networks, theaters, and communal newspapers. Five decades later, our reality is very different.
The 1990’s brought two terrorist attacks against Jewish targets – the March 17, 1992 car bomb attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 and injured more than 250; and the Hizbullah bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) Jewish community center on July 18, 1994, which left 87 dead and over 100 injured. More than 20 years on, no one has been charged for either atrocity. Instead, the prosecutor in charge of AMIA’s attack investigation is dead under mysterious circumstances.
Our community was also hit especially hard by the economic crises in the early 1990s and 2000s, leading many to emigrate to North America and Israel. Probably the most significant impact of the drop in numbers has been the closing of many Jewish schools, directly affecting Jewish education.
Over the past few decades, the number of unaffiliated Jews has risen significantly for a number of reasons, among them: a lack of interest in Jewish institutions, security anxieties since the two terrorist attacks, and disappointment with the existing Jewish leadership.
Today, 180,000 people consider themselves Jewish. They are concentrated in Buenos Aires, Córdoba, Rosario and Tucumán. The descendants of the Jewish gauchos left for the big cities. Many towns and smaller cities cannot muster a minyan.
Our first Limud Buenos Aires in 2007 drew 400 participants, including families, singles, seniors, and people whose only contact with the community was through the Jewish sports clubs. It was a celebration of study, Judaism and pluralism, a moment of happiness, a breath of fresh air. Participants took ownership, understanding we are all builders of Limmud.
Limud Buenos Aires has changed and grown over the last eight years. We have diversified, with activities like Dia Limud; Limud Express; Rosh Hashaná Urbano, a massive street festival on Rosh Hashaná’s eve; JavrutaBA; and Casa Limmud. We have also mentored other Limmuds, including Brazil, Chile and Perú.
In Argentina, we are proud to have inspired and supported a new local team in the coastal town of Mar del Plata, south of Buenos Aires. Limud Mar del Plata launched on February 3, 2015, with 200 participants. Their second event is planned for May 2016.
Limmud is now central to the Jewish scene. It’s the place you have to be. By insisting on local talent, we have discovered gifted, previously unknown presenters. By insisting on pluralism, we succeed in gathering under the same roof LGBT Jews, Orthodox Jews, and political activists on all sides of the Middle East divide. By not being beholden to any one Jewish institution, we have created a space that is comfortable for all. By insisting on no hierarchy, we bring Jews from across the economic, social and religious spectrum together to learn.
The challenge for my generation is not to build a community. It is to rebuild it. It is to ensure that we turn Jewish wisdom into action, and we enable Jews to feel free to practice Judaism as they see fit. It is to redefine the numerous meanings of the word kehilá. Limud Buenos Aires is well on the way to mastering these challenges.
Patricia Kahane, executive director of the Tzedaká Foundation, helped found Limud Buenos Aires and San Pablo, Brazil. She served on the Limud Buenos Aires board until 2013. She is married, with two daughters, aged 24 and 20.
At the very first meeting with Limmud founder Clive Lawton, several members of Limud Mexico’s volunteer steering committee shared the same thought: “Our community is different. We’re too stagnant. We’re too closed. Maybe Limmud won’t work here.”
Leading Jewish world demographer Professor Sergio della Pergola predicts that Mexico’s 36,000-strong Jewish community – 95% of them in Mexico City – will continue to grow, albeit slowly. About 35% of Mexican Jews are Ashkenazi, 45% are either from the Damascus or Aleppo Syrian communities, and 15% are Sephardic from the Balkans. But while shrinkage is not in the cards, we do face other social challenges, including inner divisions, religious extremism, and problems with Jewish education.
Our first Limud México, a one-day event in October 2012, attracted 180 people. Each Día Limud since, we have increased in size. But the process has been accompanied by growing pains. For example, in 2013 we had to find a new venue when our host, a Jewish day school, learned that Guimel, the Jewish LGBT Association, was included in the program.
As in many other Jewish communities, there has been a shift towards a less open Orthodoxy, especially in the Syrian community. We therefore invited Abraham Tobal, a rabbi at Mt. Sinai Community serving Jews from Damascus, to present in 2014. “I simply love Limud,” Rabbi Tobal enthused afterwards. “I think everyone should come and learn.”
Dia Limud is also a welcoming space for Jews by choice.
In 2015, we want to take Limud México to the next step by linking up with North America’s other Jewish communities. Traditionally, we’ve hosted international presenters for one or two sessions in English. This November, we are inaugurating a complete English track!
Most Mexican Jews are fluent in English. In this way, we want to introduce new ideas from abroad. We also hope it will entice local English speakers and others from abroad to join us for a “Mexican-Limudy” experience.
On November 8, 2015, Día Limud will host Yaffa Epstein, a top Pardes Institute scholar and newly-ordained Orthodox female rabbi. Thanks to a Covenant Foundation stipend, we will also learn from Howard Blas, who has worked with bnai mitzvah with special needs in Camp Ramah and other formal and non-formal educational institutions in the US. We hope many ROIers from around the world will take advantage of their ROI Micro Grants to attend.
From the get-go, Marcos Metta, of the Metta Saade Foundation, has been Limud México’s main donor. Metta is intent on strengthening us, because, he believes, a stronger Limmud ensures that the Mexican Jewish community will be able to face its problems in a Jewish way. Furthermore, Limud Mexico has proven that as a community we can move forward on our Jewish journey through dialogue.
“We support innovative ideas to improve the Mexican Jewish community,” Metta emphasized. “Limud México is at the forefront of this effort!”
Renato Huarte Cuéllar holds a PhD in Philosophy and is a tenured associate professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University-UNAM. He founded Limud Mexico and, since 2015, represents Limmud communities in Latin America in the Limmud International Steering Group.
Peru’s Jewish community is concentrated in Lima, the capital, and numbers 2,500 members (down from double that in the early 1980s, thanks to emigration-inducing economic instability and terrorism).
Three synagogues (Orthodox Sephardic, Orthodox Ashkenazic, and Masorti), a social recreational club, a Jewish community school, a youth movement, an old age home, a cemetery, and two Chabad houses – one in Cuzco, an important tourist site – fall under the umbrella of the Jewish Association of Peru. Over 90% of the Peru’s Jewish children and youth attend the Jewish community’s León Pinelo School.
The Jewish Association of Peru launched Limud Peru in October 2013 to mobilize a lethargic and drowsy community. The Hebraica Club and Hanoar Hatzioni joined forces with the JDC and Limmud International, as well as a large corps of volunteers, to produce the event. Nearly a quarter of the community – more than 600 people, including 160 children – took part!
We surprised ourselves. We discovered how much we could achieve by collaborating. We reaffirmed our interest in Judaism. We understood just how much local knowledge and talent we possess. We also re-affirmed the importance of the Peruvian Jewish entrepreneurs, whose generosity ensured that every interested community member could attend.
Heading toward our third Limud Peru 2015 on November 28, we can already measure our impact:
First, we see how the community pulls together to produce this this ambitious project.
Second, we’ve created a demand for out-of-the-box Jewish programming. Thanks to us, the Jewish community school parent association is fundraising to supplement its curriculum with engaging educational initiatives.
Third, communal collaboration has become a given on other projects, as well. This is what happened with the Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, which draws over 50% of the community, as well as the communal Lag baOmer celebration. In addition, three organizations, and not only the Sephardic society, came together to promote the commemoration of the 1492 Jewish expulsion from Spain.
There are still many areas where we need improvement. But since Limud Peru came to town, every Peruvian Jew knows that we can aim high and achieve big with community unity.
Leon Pardo, director of Jewish Education at the Jewish Community School of Peru, is a past-President of the Jewish Association of Peru and the Sephardic Society of Peru; editor of “La Boz Sefardí,” monthly publication on Sephardic history and culture; and, social and cultural activities coordinator at the Sephardic community.