Nadine Greenfield, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, is Associate Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Washington, DC Chapter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to the Wexner Foundation, we all know what it means to “network”—to be able to pick up the phone/keyboard and call on someone for guidance, expertise or just more information. We also have had the opportunity to deepen our understanding of Jewish history and values and to strengthen our own skills regardless of our areas of focus. The Wexner programs unmistakably strengthen Jewish leadership in North America and Israel. A question I had not pondered in the past is whether anyone was helping to strengthen Jewish leadership in other parts of the world.
I recently had the privilege of participating in the twentieth Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, a program of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. The conference, which generally occurs in a different continent annually, took place in Colonia Suiza, Uruguay this year. Because of this, approximately sixty percent of the fellows were from Latin America. Much like a Wexner Institute, the Goldmann Fellowship’s purpose is to bring together young Jewish leaders (in this case, from around the world) to study Jewish text, learn about each other’s communities, and develop leadership skills to take back to our respective communities. Even some of the members of the faculty were familiar—Dr. Steven Bayme, Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Dr. Steven M. Cohen represented the American Jewish community of scholars.
The theme of the conference, “World Jewry in the 21st Century,” was broad. Sessions focused on the larger challenges we face as a global Jewish community, such as the safety and security of Israel, Jewish continuity and Jewish ethical imperatives. When I first reviewed the schedule, I must admit I was a bit disappointed. I thought the sessions seemed like old-hat for me. After all, I have participated in hundreds of conversations about these issues, attended dozens of like-minded sessions, and even learned from some of the same teachers. But I was wrong. It was an entirely new experience for me.
Reading and analyzing literature with Sylvia Barack Fishman was suddenly different when surrounded by my new Colombian, Chilean, Uruguayan, French, and South African friends. I learned to read differently, to capture different messages and to be sensitive to ideas and concerns that would not have ever occurred to me two months ago.
We all know that Americans are sometimes viewed as self-centered or self-aggrandizing. I was humbled by my experience in Uruguay. It’s true that North Americans may encounter anti-Semitism at times or may be concerned with the threat of assimilation; but my new friends, Roberto from Bogotá and Elizabeth from Lima, taught me about actual assimilation and intermarriage, where Jewish identity is simply eliminated. In Jewish communities that make up a fraction of a percent, many young Jews leave their homes for a better life or education in North America or Israel, some leave to find Jewish spouses, and others stay and fade into the background. Many Latin American Jewish communities also struggle with lack of diversity within the Jewish world, making it difficult to engage Jews who do not want to practice Orthodox Judaism. Increasingly, other forms of Jewish religious practice are coming into play, but still only in the larger, more established communities.
On the other side of the spectrum, I had an eye-opening experience to learn about and witness the vibrant Jewish community of Argentina. Buenos Aires is home to approximately 250,000 Jews (comparable to the DC area); boasts approximately 25 Jewish Community Centers (3 in the DC area); about thirty Jewish schools of all sizes, which educate approximately fifty percent of Jewish children; about fifteen kosher restaurants (including the only Kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel); an actual published “Kosher Map”; a rabbinical seminary (Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano); and dozens of synagogues with a variety of styles. In fact, New York’s Bnai Jeshurun as we know it today was and is shaped by three rabbis from Buenos Aires (Rabbi Marshall Meyer, American-born, but the founder of the Seminario and former rabbi of a leading synagogue in B.A.; Rabbi Rolando Matalon; and Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein). The Shabbat I spent in Buenos Aires after the conference was one I will never forget. I thought that the late weeknights of Buenos Aires would eventually transition into a true Sabbath rest. Instead, it translated into a Shabbat dinner that ended at three in the morning when some of the non- Argentinean guests began to take naps at the dinner table. The spirit of Shabbat as well as the family we were hosted by was different than anything I have ever experienced in my very-involved Jewish life here in the States.
During the conference I also realized how much we, as North Americans, need to learn about and from world Jewry. I have traveled significantly and even lived abroad (outside of Israel) for a while, so I am not completely sheltered by American life. Still, I felt sheltered. I was inspired by the deep commitment to Jewish education around the world and actually frustrated by the difficulties American Jews face when it comes to paying for day school education. In places like Argentina and South Africa, I am told that there is an unwritten “no Jewish child left behind” policy. I am afraid that my husband and I do not feel that security in Washington, D.C.
During the conference, I also gained a great appreciation for our counterparts around the world who do not have the luxury of earning their “bread,” like many of us, by working for the Jewish world. While you might think that is simply what lay leadership is about, it became clear that, in some instances, there are not enough opportunities to serve in a professional capacity for the Jewish community or that some of the communities do not have the money to hire someone to deal with certain issues. For instance, Yair from Sydney runs his own business full time, but he is also the coordinator of all of the community’s security needs and much of its administrative oversight. Elodie, from Paris, is a full-time engineer, but is also the current Executive Director for Limoud France. Eric is a finance executive in Cape Town, but also works as a fundraiser for Jewish organizations.
Having met such a dynamic and energetic group of young Jewish leaders from around the world, I feel more confident that as we move into an increasingly global society, the clichéd concept of “kol yisrael aravim zeh b’zeh” will still mean something. At least I know who I can call when my work at the American Jewish Committee suddenly requires me to connect with the Jewish community in Belgrade.
My experience in Uruguay encouraged me to think outside our North American (and even Israeli) bubble; to understand more deeply what it means to stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters; and to consider and appreciate our shared challenges, successes and values.