Latin American Jewry growing rapidly, facing challenges

buenos aires, argentina   |   When the Sao Paulo Hebraica Sports Club and Community Center in Brazil opened the Aleph School earlier this month, it welcomed 450 students and had 120 more on the waiting list for next year.

Hebraica, which is similar to an American Jewish community center, has reached 24,000 members and has a $30 million budget. Meanwhile, Sao Paulo’s oldest synagogue, Temple Beth El, recently dedicated a new building, leaving the original one to become the Jewish Museum of Sao Paulo.

In Panama, the Jewish community has grown by 70 percent in the past 10 years. The 8,000-member community in that period has seen a rise from three to 10 b’nai mitzvah a week.

Havdallah at the World Union for Progressive Judaism Conference of Jewish Communities in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in August. photo/jta-diego melamed

In Argentina, the number of children in Jewish preschool programs has soared by nearly 1,000, from 3,952 in 2005 to 4,914 in 2012.

Nearly everywhere one looks, Jewish life is growing in Latin America, which is now home to an estimated 500,000 Jews. The growth comes as the region continues to transform economically following the end of military dictatorships that ruled many countries into the 1980s.

And more growth is on the horizon. Latin America will contribute to global growth more than Europe in the next seven years, according to the Economic Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Still, challenges remain for many Jewish communities.

“We have strong signals of a new flourishing situation, but we also will still have a variety of problems, like the poor knowledge about Judaism in our members and some type of hidden anti-Semitism in the general society,” said Alberto Milkewitz, director of the Israelite Federation of Sao Paulo.

But that hasn’t dimmed optimism among Jewish leaders.

Some 83 percent of approximately 400 of the region’s Jewish leaders polled recently by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee believe that conditions in their countries are good enough to further develop Jewish life. Only 10 percent reported that living as a Jew is risky. Brazilians self-reported the most positive feedback, Venezuelans the most negative. The poll’s full results will be released at a Nov. 12 JDC meeting in Quito, Ecuador.

Venezuela is the notable exception to the positive wave. Political insecurity, economic challenges and state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the country have prompted significant Jewish emigration in recent years. Venezuela now has an estimated 9,000 Jews, down from about twice that number a decade ago, according to the JDC.

The race for president in Venezuela has seen the incumbent, Hugo Chavez — a close ally of Iran and acerbic critic of Israel — use state media to lob anti-Semitic broadsides against his rival, Henrique Capriles Radonski, a grandson of Holocaust survivors. The election is scheduled for Oct. 7.

In Chile, home to 15,000 Jews and some 400,000 Palestinians, Rabbi Chaim Koritznisky is much more positive.

“Four years ago I was invited to Santiago by five families to build a new synagogue community called Ruach Ami,” said Koritznisky, who heads a Reform congregation. A hundred families now belong to the temple and more than 500 people are expected for the High Holy Days.

In Panama City, a decade ago there were barely any children at weekly activities at Kol Shearith Israel synagogue. Now nearly 60 young people participate in weekly events and the community  budget has tripled.

Argentina, with 285,000 Jews, is home to the region’s largest Jewish community. The growth in preschool children there has been matched by a rise in Jewish high school and college students. In Buenos Aires alone the number has risen from 15,593 to 19,162 in the past seven years.

International Jewish organizations are noticing the increased Jewish activities. Last November the Jewish Agency’s board of governors met in Argentina — the first time in 15 years that its summit was held outside of Israel. The following month, Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky announced a $1 million fund to strengthen the connection of young South American Jews to Israel as well as to the global Jewish community.

“This region has a vibrant reality and an incredible production of knowledge and Jewish life,” Shai Pinto, the vice president and COO of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, told JTA. “In our movement Latin America is the fastest growing region.”