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Around the Jewish World in Mexico, Hebraic University Tries to Stem Crisis of Jewish Education

December 15, 2003
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Jewish education in Latin America is facing a crisis, and a small university here is trying to stem it.

Mexico City’s Hebraic University, the only government-accredited Jewish university in Latin America, is positioning itself to serve communities thousands of miles away through Internet-based courses, traveling seminars and other international initiatives.

“In 10 years, we want to become the center of Jewish academic life in Latin America,” university director Daniel Fainstein told JTA in an interview at the school. “Our target population is not just Mexico, but the entire Spanish-speaking world.”

At a time when economic and political turmoil throughout Latin America has left Jewish communities with fewer people and resources, many are struggling to recruit new teachers and provide veterans with up-to-date training.

“We are very worried,” said Edith Blaustein, executive director of the Vaad Hajinuj, or board of Jewish education, in Chile. “I believe the region is going to suffer a shortfall of adequately trained teachers.”

The overwhelming majority of Jewish children in Latin America attend Jewish schools, and a shortage of qualified teachers could have a devastating impact on communities in the region, education leaders said.

Since Fainstein, an Argentine native, joined the Hebraic University in fall 2002, the institution has embarked on a major academic restructuring effort, headed by Judit Bokser Liwerant of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM.

What started as a way to improve Jewish education in Mexico now has become an international project.

“We realized that in a global world you can’t shut yourself in your own community, so we’ve widened our goal,” Fainstein said. The aim now is to reach even to Miami and Spain, in addition to Spanish-speaking Latin America.

The university has formed official alliances with universities such as UNAM and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is looking to expand its global ties. In the last academic year, it began an aggressive campaign to bring top scholars from around the world to lead seminars in Mexico City.

The university plans to send groups of Latin American students to Israel and the United States for workshops soon.

Paul Mendes-Flohr, a member of the university’s international advisory board and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he applauds Fainstein’s initiative.

“The world Jewish community is supporting this very ambitious project,” Mendes-Flohr told JTA in a telephone interview from Chicago, where he teaches at the University of Chicago part of the year.

He said Fainstein, whom he called “an extraordinarily gifted educational leader,” deserves credit for the project.

“There is an urgent need to revitalize Jewish intellectual life in Latin America, and he’s taken it upon himself to do that,” Mendes-Flohr said.

For slightly more than a year, the Hebraic University has occupied new quarters in the Lomas de Chamizal neighborhood of Mexico City, in the same hilltop complex as the Sephardi community’s headquarters and synagogue, Shar Hashamaim.

With a new location and a new mission, the university hardly resembles what it once was.

The school began in 1964 as a teachers’ college, the Morot Seminar. Its name later was changed to the University Institute of Hebrew Culture.

The school became an accredited university in 1992 through Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Education.

The university offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, and the programs combine course work in education with classes in Jewish thought and history.

The university also offers professional development courses for educators and extension courses with titles such as Jewish Spirituality and The Hebrew Bible: A Literary Perspective.

The university has about 125 full-time students. About 90 percent of graduates teach in Mexico’s 17 Jewish schools, 15 of which are in Mexico City.

During the past year, university officials met with the Jewish schools’ principals to determine how the university could better serve them.

“After talking with principals, we realized that the university wasn’t providing what the schools needed, and there needed to be a change,” said Carlos Jinich, president of the Hebraic University’s board of directors.

Amelie Esquenazi, principal of the Sephardic Hebrew School in Mexico City, said it’s not easy to find qualified teachers.

“For me, it was important that the university expand its role,” she said. “And it’s clear that’s happening now.”

Teaching is not a popular profession among Jews in Mexico, where the average teacher salary is the equivalent of about $10,000 a year, Fainstein said.

“Teaching has a lack of prestige in the Jewish community,” he said. “Unlike in other countries, there is not a development of a middle-class intellectual life in Mexico.”

Jessica Memun, 24, a first-year student, said she hopes to become a kindergarten art teacher at a Jewish school in Mexico City after graduation.

“I do wish that teachers were better paid,” said Memun, who spent three summers as a camp counselor. “But children fascinate me, and this is what I want to do.”

In addition to lobbying for higher teacher salaries, Fainstein’s strategy includes an intellectual revolution that he hopes will change a cultural mind-set.

As the university reaches out for Mexico’s brightest students and scholars, it also will extend its efforts beyond the country’s borders.

“There is now a great necessity in Latin American Jewish communities to train teachers,” Jinich said. “Some communities are too small to do this themselves, and support from the” Hebraic University “will be important.”

Even in Latin America’s largest Jewish community — in Buenos Aires — an economic crisis has crippled school resources. An estimated 10,000 Jews have left Argentina, mostly for Israel and the United States, since the economic crisis hit about three years ago.

Two Jewish teachers’ colleges in Argentina have closed since then, Fainstein said.

South American Jewish communities that for many years saw Buenos Aires as the leader of Jewish life on the continent now are looking north for educational resources.

Blaustein of Chile said she hopes to work with the Hebraic University to develop technology-focused training for teachers in her country.

“What I’d like to see is a combination of e-learning and a tailor-made program in which educators would come to Chile to work with our teachers,” she told JTA in a telephone interview.

By the fall of 2004, the university plans to install video conferencing technology that would allow students throughout Latin America to take Hebraic University courses on the Internet in real time. It also will offer self- paced distance-learning classes that can be accessed at any time.

The university also plans to expand its library and enhance its technological capabilities in the next two years. It will rely on funding from the Jewish Agency For Israel’s e-learning initiative and is also seeking private donors.

“We need people with a vision for the future who understand that without an institution like the Hebraic University, it’s not possible for Jewish life here to continue,” Fainstein said.

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