Forging New Ties at JDC’s Conference for Latin American Jewish Leaders

Derek (at r.) with a Latin American Encuentro participant.
Derek (at r.) with a Latin American Encuentro participant.

Derek Miller

How did I, a 25-year-old from central Connecticut, end up in Quito, Ecuador at JDC’s Encuentro (Conference) for Latin American Jews? I am not Hispanic, and although I have aunts from Cuba and Puerto Rico, they are Catholic and have no relation to the Jewish communities of their countries. And even though I do speak Spanish, the answer comes down to my involvement with JDC Entwine.

I have traveled a few times with JDC (affectionately referred to as “The Joint,” and with a cool accent if said by any Spanish-speaker). My first experience was a short-term service trip to Ukraine and Kazakhstan when I was in college, and since then I have been to Khabarovsk, Russia; Israel; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and now to Quito, Ecuador. Through my adventures with the Joint I have made friends all over the world, and I feel like I truly am a part of the global Jewish community.

When I told one of the JDC Entwine professionals that I wanted to get more involved, she suggested that I attend the 12th Encuentro. Honestly, I struggled with the decision to participate. I had just gotten back from Buenos Aires, and wasn’t sure I could justify the expense of more travel. And since I had no concrete ties to the Latin American Jewish communities, I wavered back and forth. Ultimately, I chose to go and learn about these communities with the hope of increasing my bond to them. At the very least, it would be an adventure…

And indeed it was. Five days full of seminar-style talks, lunch discussions, delicious food (I could write a food blog on the native delicacies), and TONS of new friends. The talks ranged from histories of the Jewish communities to South America’s socioeconomic landscape to strategies to increase youth involvement.

The presentations were quite interesting – but I honestly feel like I gained the most from hanging out with my peers from all around Latin America. Whether at lunch, dinner, exploring the city, or in Plaza Foch (“Gringolandia,” as the locals call it because of the high concentration of tourists), I learned so much from them. Some are students; others have begun their careers. Some work in the secular world; others at JCCs and other Jewish community organizations.

How are we similar? How are we different?

Aside from nationality and our countries’ cultures, we are eerily similar. Seeing those similarities first-hand underlined for me the fact that we are one Jewish world that can truly learn from and help each other. Bringing all these young people together united us in a way I would have never expected. We danced, sang, chanted (I learned El Baile de la Ensalada), and talked. Yes, there was lots of talking.

I love talking. I love connecting with people. And I look at every travel experience as a way to reflect on my life so that when I return home I can treat it as a new beginning. Kind of like having a ‘New Year’s Resolution’ every time I go away.

So post-Quito, I am now asking myself, “What can I do? What ‘New Year’s Resolution’ can I make to better my own community and life?”

First, I want to move to Buenos Aires. I loved the city when I was there in August, and I think the Argentine accent in Spanish is beautiful (and strange). I now officially have more friends in the city of Buenos Aires than I do in the entire state of Connecticut; I also have friends now in Chile, Venezuela, and Mexico, among others. Also, they have amazing wines in Argentina, and since I´m a sommelier it only makes sense that I go to sample the wines.

Second, I want to help my own community at home. The Jewish community that hosted us, the Ecuadorian community, consists of fewer than 400 people. My synagogue at home has about 250 members—a number that is constantly decreasing due to immigration and integration. After seeing the Ecuadorians’ dedication to their community and its continuity, I am more motivated to talk to my rabbi about helping to increase youth involvement.

The history of each Latin American Jewish community is different. The struggles of Venezuela are completely different from the struggles of Argentina, just as the struggles of Jews in Kazakhstan are different from those of the Jews in France. Just because these communities exist on a single continent does not mean we can discount or forget about the differences among them.

Each person, young and old, came to the Encuentro with a different goal in mind. I definitely got more out of the experience than I could have ever imagined. I can´t even believe that two months ago I was contemplating not participating. The exchange of ideas, the networking, the personal growth, and most importantly, the people I met all came together to make these five days unforgettable.

To all the people I met: I will never forget you. Although we live thousands of miles (kilometers?) apart, we are all connected. Let´s not forget what we learned and how we spent these meaningful days in Quito. And, come what may, let’s reunite at the next Encuentro!!

Derek Miller, a globetrotting resident of central Connecticut, has traveled with JDC Entwine to serve Jewish communities from Argentina to Kazakhstan.

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