Young Jewish leaders in Latin America are seeking a voice

“What keeps you up at night?” 

This question is a favorite icebreaker for many of us in the Jewish world to ask when we want a broader view of the challenges and opportunities within our communities, so naturally I posed it during a recent two-day program for young professionals from Latin America and the U.S. held in Santiago, Chile. 

These 25 emerging leaders, between the ages of 21-37, represented seven different countries across the region and were nominated by their respective Jewish communities to participate. 

Their answers to my question were, for the most part, expected: concerns about antisemitism, Jewish communal security, the fallout from the Hamas attack of Oct. 7. What surprised me, however, were their concerns about the dearth of opportunities to ascend into leadership positions within their respective communities across Latin America. 

One emerging leader from Mexico wrote: “I believe there has been a gradual improvement in the preparation of current leaders and the preparation of future leaders, but I feel that it has not been taken with the seriousness it deserves.” 

A young Colombian leader wrote: “Jewish life in Colombia is strong when it’s related to teenagers and kids, since they have constant activities provided by the school and the youth movements. However, once people graduate from school, there is a lack of institutions that can provide a Jewish framework for young adults. There is a clear lack of a universal movement where young leaders can develop their skills in advocacy and activism in Jewish spaces.”

Over the course of our two days together, housed in the exceptionally beautiful and welcoming Círculo Israelita de Santiago, a consistent message emerged: there is insufficient investment in elevating Jewish young professional leadership across Latin America.

Stained glass window at the Sinagoga del Círculo Israelita de Santiago in Santiago, Chile. Photo by José Zalaquett/X.

Although the Latin American Jewish community is 750,000 strong, many emerging leaders don’t see a future for themselves at home. Young Jews are leaving their communities for professional or personal opportunities — and they don’t come back.

We’re working to reverse this trend, and are encouraging Latin American Jewish institutions to embrace and fully integrate young professionals into their leadership infrastructure. Responsibility also lies with our talented and highly motivated emerging leaders, for whom the legendary proclamation by the late New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm applies: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Wherever decisions are being made that affect the Jewish communities of Latin America, it is imperative that community leaders make space for young professionals, and that those young professionals are prepared to bring a chair if necessary. 

So what does this look like in practice? The organizational management term for “bringing a folding chair” is the adaptive leadership model, a framework that encourages organizations to consult with all stakeholders — not just those in senior leadership — to determine what changes need to be made within the organizational ecosystem. While this sounds like an obvious route, the reality is far more complicated. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when the adaptive process asks candidly whether existing leaders sometimes need to step back. 

Organizations are at their best when their leadership is democratized, enabling everyone in the organization to step up when needed. Based on the countless discussions we had with these 25 young professionals, the moment has arrived for Latin American Jewish communities to have the deeply important conversations — however difficult — about transforming their organizations to ensure a sustainable future. 

At the end of our program, these talented emerging leaders joined me to announce the creation of a Latin America ACCESS Advisory Board, which will advise the American Jewish Committee about key issues that affect their Jewish communities and build a network of emerging leaders to share ideas, initiatives and support. These board members hail from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, Panama and Peru. They represent not only the future of our Jewish communities, but the present as well. I am excited to work closely with them to expand our reach to even more communities and ensure that they feel equipped and confident to lead their communities on issues including security, philanthropy and community engagement. 

AJC has worked closely with the senior leadership of Latin American Jewish communities since 2005, many of whom were in attendance in Santiago, and their enthusiasm for this new initiative marks a critical new chapter in the effort to engage Latin American Jewish youth. After meeting with our young professionals, one senior leader told me that now he might finally be able to get a good night’s sleep. 

Dana Levinson Steiner is the director of ACCESS Global at the American Jewish Committee.