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Around the Jewish World Among Latin American Jews, Diversity Still a Contentious Issue

November 7, 2003
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Latin American Jewish leaders and scholars who gathered here this past week overwhelmingly support pluralism in their Jewish communities — but they recognize that it’s a growing problem throughout the region.

A panel discussion on diversity during the Ninth Meeting of Leaders of Latin American and Caribbean Jewish Institutions and Communities ignited vibrant, informal chats on the topic throughout the entire weekend.

At the Oct. 31 presentation, Jewish leaders told an audience of about 400 people that they condemn discrimination among Jews on the basis of factors such as religious practice, conversion status and sexual preference.

Discrimination within Jewish communities is a growing problem in Latin America, panelists said.

“Before, people normally didn’t ask ‘Is your mother Jewish? Is your father Jewish?’ ” Alberto Senderey, international director for community development at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which sponsored the conference, said in an interview. “But now they ask.”

Division in Jewish communities is not unique to Latin America. But some of the region’s communities are too small to be divided, said several leaders at the conference, which drew participants from 22 countries.

In Costa Rica, where there are about 3,000 Jews, discrimination among Jews affects everyday life, said Moises Falchler, president of B’nai B’rith of Costa Rica. He criticized the Orthodox community — to which he belongs — for shunning people who are intermarried or who adopted children.

“There isn’t tolerance, and nobody’s doing anything about it,” Falchler said.

Another group often rejected by Jewish communities is homosexuals, said Irma Anhalt of Mexico.

“My daughter and others don’t have a space where they can be themselves” in the Jewish community, Anhalt, struggling to hold back tears, told the crowd from her seat in the audience. “What can we do to keep from alienating those who are a minority of a minority?”

Judit Bokser Liwerant, head of postgraduate studies at the school of political and social sciences at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the panel that the challenge of diversity in Jewish communities is learning “how to accept others without losing one’s own identity.”

Eduardo Berner, a student from Monterrey, Mexico, said that he doesn’t believe in excluding people from the community, but understands why it happens. In small Jewish communities such as Monterrey, which has about 120 Jewish families, disapproval of intermarriage is a means of preserving Jewish life, he said.

“They’ve chosen this way to survive,” he said.

But Senderey warned that hate within a group can kill the group.

“We need to create communities that defend the rights of others to express opinions,” he said. “I don’t wish everyone was the same — that would be boring.”

For Gabriel Ejgenberg of Montevideo, Uruguay, it was inspiring to hear Jewish leaders endorse pluralism.

“It gave me the greatest peace to hear these influential people saying these things,” he said. “It gives me hope.”

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