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Rabbis Concerned About Future of Latin American Jewish Youth

Eleven Sephardic rabbis from seven Latin American countries, attending the first International Conclave of the Sephardic Rabbinate of America here, stressed their concern for the problems and conditions of Jewish life in their respective communities. The three-day gathering, held from Dec. 18-21, was sponsored by Yeshiva University and the World Sephardi Federation.

The co-hosts were Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Solomon Gaon, chairman of the World Sephardi Federation and director of Sephardic studies at the university. A second conclave is planned to take place in Mexico City next year.

FACING ‘SPIRITUAL SUICIDE’

The visitors from Latin America said they were confronted by “spiritual suicide” among Sephardic youth in their countries. Gaon observed that “in their new surroundings, our people have often abandoned the family values which were so evident in the old countries” where Sephardic Jews originated, such as Turkey and the Balkan countries and the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

Gaon said the only exception was the Jews of Syrian origin “who by great sacrifice have built Torah institutions in their communities.” He said that what is needed are “experienced and well trained educators who will be able to face these difficulties and turn the tide of assimilation and spiritual suicide.”

In a message to the gathering from Geneva, Dr. Nessim Gaon, president of the World Sephardi Federation, stressed that Sephardic communities must “strengthen one another and also seek help from the Ashkenazic communities.” He said that “promoting and encouraging Jewish education everywhere is the only way to guarantee the continuity of our Jewish identity.”

SITUATION IN VENEZUELA

In some Latin American communities, the small number of Jews contributes to the problem of assimilation. Rabbi Pynchos Brenner, Chief Rabbi of the Union Israelite de Caracas in Venezuela, noted that the entire Jewish community in that city amounts to less than one percent of its residents. As a result, he said, Jewish youths encounter fewer Jewish influences when they attend local universities than they do in New York or in Argentina. According to Chief Rabbi Shelomo Benhamu of Buenos Aires, there are 800,000 Jews in Argentine, two major Jewish newspapers and numerous yeshivas.

Another Venezuela rabbi, Rabbi Jacobo Garzon of the Asociacion Israelite de Venezuela, reported that most of the Jewish teachers in Caracas are visiting Israelis who stay for a year or two and establish only passing relationships with their students. But, he said, on Instituto Superior de Estudios Judaicos was established recently to provide more advanced Jewish studies for those who want it.

SITUATION IN MEXICO

Rabbi Abraham Palti, of Mexico City, said there are 40,000 Jews there but they are divided into four separate communities that have little to do with one another except on an official level. He said, however, that the rabbinic leaders of the four communities have been meeting recently to plan to bring the groups together as a result of Yeshiva University’s Realidad program.

The Realidad program is sponsored by the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an affiliate of Yeshiva University. It was described at the gathering by Dr. Abraham Stern, director of the seminary’s department of youth services.

The seminary has sent teams of its own and Yeshiva University students and advisors to Mexico and Colombia to meet with Jewish youth in informal settings, to allow them to experience a traditional Jewish atmosphere and to question observant young Jews about Jewish viewpoints, practices and traditions. The program has been funded with the aid of the Mexican industrialist, Marcos D. Katz. Lamm emphasized that Yeshiva University views the Realidad program as vitally important and is committed to its continuance.

Another major issue raised at the conclave was the need to share experiences and resources. In that connection, a steering committee was established to plan future conclaves. Its honorary chairman is Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin of Congregation Shaare Zion in Brooklyn, who is chief rabbi of Near Eastern and Oriental Jews of Brooklyn. Dr. Solomon Gaon will serve as chairman.

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