Recently, Mike Abrams, Jewish Federations of Greater Kansas City Board Chair, and I had the opportunity to go on a Jewish Federations of North America mission to South America, visiting Argentina and Uruguay. We were 160 strong together, both lay and professional leaders from around the U.S. We saw, we learned, we tasted, we experienced, we danced and sang and prayed, and we reveled.
We, along with our partner agencies — the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and World ORT — should be very proud of what we’re doing to support those communities.
My experience can best be explained through the many quotes I scribed along the way.
First was Rabbi Sergio Bergman, Argentina’s National Secretary of Environment and Sustainable Development, who said, “We are one family with one heart – we need to live the values. We are partners in values, purpose and meaning.” That fundamental statement resonated with me throughout the trip.
Ambassador Elisa Trotta Gamus, Venezuela’s Ambassador to Argentina, spoke to us about the humanitarian crisis her country is suffering through after 20 years of dictatorship. There are only 4,500 Jews left in Venezuela, desperately in need of food and medicine. The impact on the people is three times worse than that of the Depression in the 1930s. Our community, through JAFI and JDC, is there making sure food and medicine get to where they are most needed.
Jessica, a former Shlicha (Israeli emissary) to Venezuela, told us, “They can take away our rights and freedom but not our Jewish identity.” The strength of the Venezuelan Jewish community is to be marveled at and their courage admired.
We also met a high school student participating in the Dillard Program, which is supported by the funds we provide to JAFI. Sophie shared that the program gives her knowledge and tools to grow as a person. “I am more connected to Judaism…. I love being Jewish.” These students travel to Israel then come back to Argentina to implement projects through micro-grants that focus on Jewish peoplehood. Sophie and her fellow students, along with Israeli Shlichim around the world, keep our Jewish culture vibrant and strong.
In Uruguay we visited Charlotte de Grunberg, Director General of the ORT Uruguay University. As a Holocaust survivor and subject of a recent biography, La Nina que Miraba los Trenes Partir (The Girl Who Watched the Trains Depart), Charlotte spoke passionately about her experience.
What moved me most was what she said at the conclusion of her talk: “There are no small things” she said, referring to her life after this traumatic period in her youth. Life should be celebrated and appreciated. The Jews in Latin American don’t take that for granted.