A Sephardi future in Latin America?

Isaac Aspani of Mexico, at left, welcomes participants to the 2004 conference of the Sephardi Federation of Latin America. (Enrique Rivera)

Isaac Aspani of Mexico, at left, welcomes participants to the 2004 conference of the Sephardi Federation of Latin America. (Enrique Rivera)

MEXICO CITY, Feb. 9 (JTA) — Assimilation threatens the future of Sephardi Jewish communities in Latin America, leaders of the Sephardi Federation of Latin America said at the group’s biennial conference here. “We live in a time when it’s easy to assimilate,” Rabbi Abraham Tobal of the Mount Sinai Alliance in Mexico City said during last week’s conference. “And the ease of assimilation brings the threat of losing tradition.” Of Latin America’s 450,000 Jews, about 180,000 are Sephardi, with ancestors from Spain and Portugal who later settled in Syria, North Africa and the Balkans. About 20 percent of the world’s Jews are Sephardi; the rest are Ashkenazi, with ancestors from Germany and Eastern Europe. The two groups have different liturgy, religious customs and Hebrew pronunciations. Some 70 people from around Latin America gathered Feb. 2-5 for the meeting of the Sephardi Federation of Latin America, which is known as FeSeLa. The organization, founded in 1972 as a part of the World Sephardi Federation, includes members from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela and the United States. Rafael Hodara of Uruguay, who on Feb. 5 was elected to a two-year presidency of FeSeLa, said the key to preserving Sephardi culture in the region is incorporating young Sephardi Jews. “We’re going to infuse in each young person a feeling of belonging,” said Hodara, who succeeds Isaac Aspani of Mexico as FeSeLa president. Hodara challenged young people to involve their peers in Sephardi culture — a charge several young FeSeLa members said they’re willing to accept. “It’s important to get young people together, to encourage them to get involved,” said Isaac Alfie, 28, of Montevideo, Uruguay. “The majority of the people involved are older, and what will happen when they’re not here?” The meetings took place at the community centers of Mexico’s three Sephardi groups: the Mount Sinai Alliance, formed by immigrants from Damascus, Syria; the Maguen David Community, formed by immigrants from Aleppo, Syria; and the Sephardi Community, whose members’ ancestors came from the Balkans. Participants said it was a joy to spend time with people who knew the same melodies to Jewish songs, and on several occasions during the conference, participants burst into spontaneous singing. For these Latin Americans, “Sephardism” is a part of their souls they can’t imagine not passing on to their children. “When I look at Sephardism in its pure essence, it’s indescribable with words,” said Leon “Ari” Konik of Mexico, a former FeSeLa president, during the conference. “When a grandmother, without knowing how to read, looks at the stars and says, ‘It’s the hour of Shabbat,’ that’s what being Sephardi is about.” Several people at the conference said that maintaining Sephardi traditions is something that must be done through education — both at home and in religious institutions. “The education outside the home is very important because we may not be educating our children well enough at home,” said Alberto Levy, whose term as vice president of FeSeLa and president of FeSeLa Mexico ended Feb. 5. “There are more traditions than what we transmit.” Levy and participants from several countries said that not enough rabbis in Latin America are trained in Sephardi customs. “It’s a problem here,” Levy said. Latin Americans go to Israel to study, “and when they come back, they make references to Ashkenazi traditions.” Salomon Garazi of Miami, a former FeSeLa president, proposed a program in which rabbis trained in Sephardi traditions would travel to various Latin American communities to give workshops. FeSeLa passed a resolution to set the program in motion. For Tobal, the rabbi, the loss of Sephardi tradition is not caused by mixed marriages. These, he said, are just a result of a cultural erosion that he compared to the Holocaust. “The Holocaust killed physically, and this kills our essence,” he said. Several Sephardi leaders in Latin America said they are working in their communities to preserve their cultural traditions. María de Azar of Buenos Aires is an officer of the Center for Research and Diffusion of Sephardi Culture, an organization that sponsors cultural activities and works to preserve Ladino, a language that was once widely spoken by Sephardi Jews. “The language is so rich, so sweet,” said Azar, who distributed a book of Ladino poetry. “It’s a form of keeping the culture alive.”

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