From the CEO: Helping Latin American Communities Facing Changing Scenarios

Alan H. Gill

– Chief Executive Officer

Latin America has taken to the headlines in recent months. With a controversial Venezuelan presidential race, a new Pope elected from the emerging continent, Argentina’s economic flux, and bolstered Iran ties, Jewish communities face uncertain times.

As always, JDC is there to work with these communities—our longtime partners—as they consider these challenging economic and social trends. My regular conversations with senior JDC staff on the ground and top community leaders have been focused on our readiness for the future, whatever it may hold. And even in the midst of this, it’s important to remember that Jewish life continues to thrive with the vigor all of us know well.

Given this landscape, I wanted to share impressions from JDC President Penny Blumenstein, who recently visited the region with her husband, Harold, and Board member Nancy Grosfeld and her husband, James. Penny’s report on current developments and JDC’s response to an evolving situation follows:
 
Harold and I traveled with the Grosfelds recently to Argentina, Chile, and Brazil. While our trip was primarily a private one, I set aside time both to visit JDC activities in Buenos Aires and to speak to community members in various locations. My aim was to gain a firsthand perspective on the political and economic situations in these areas and how they may impact our work.

First and foremost, I want to thank Board members Alejandro Ergas and Dario Werthein, who were not only incredible hosts but were terrific guides in terms of translating current events and Jewish life.

Overall, I came away with two strong impressions: 1) inflation and insecurity in Argentina and neighboring nations are creating uncertainty for Jewish communities in the near future, and 2) many there believe they are witnessing a drift away from democracy and the emergence of more authoritarian tendencies throughout the region.

In Argentina I was told that rising prices, the government’s U.S. dollar controlled exchange rate policy, the lack of any political opposition, and sporadic instances of urban violence were all contributing to growing feelings of anxiety among members of the largest Jewish community on the continent, more than 240,000 strong.

We visited a number of Jewish institutions in Buenos Aires, including the Baby Help program that JDC initiated in 2003 to aid young children whose families were living below the poverty line. Today it continues to provide baby formula and a range of supplies, as well as day care and supportive services to single parents and families who cannot afford their most basic needs. And through its holiday programs and new, hands-on lessons in Jewish living, it strengthens the families’ Jewish connections and helps ensure their Jewish future.

The Baby Help center is now located in the Buenos Aires community’s LeDor VaDor complex for the elderly, an innovative arrangement that has fostered a remarkable interaction between generations. We saw young and old gardening together, with the children basking in the attention of their “adoptive grandparents” and the seniors relishing a newfound nurturing role.

The state-of-the-art LeDor VaDor facility offers a variety of services and programs for both residents and non-residents. The success of this community-driven project – accomplished with significant local fundraising in partnership with the Weinberg and Myers Foundations, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, and JDC – attests to the resilience of Argentine Jewry.

It was heartening to hear on so many occasions throughout my travels that Latin America’s Jewish communities regard JDC as a trusted international Jewish organization and value its professionalism, know-how, and respect for local cultures and traditions.

During the height of the previous decade’s economic crisis in Argentina and Uruguay, the needs of the communities were readily apparent. This time, although there is a sense that things are percolating, the situation is not yet visible to the eye. That’s why I left gratified to know we can all rest assured that the local leadership is strong and extraordinarily capable.

And these leaders know that JDC is closely monitoring developments and is at the ready to deploy our community planning experts and on the ground staff to help them solve whatever problems and challenges arise.

Right before we arrived in Buenos Aires, the “Baby Pesaj” model seder at Baby Help was the site of children playing holiday games and singing Passover songs, while adults took part in reading the Haggadah and shared memories of past celebrations. Such a happy scene was a reminder that, despite the bumps in the road, the Jews of Latin America persevere and continue to instill our traditions in future generations.

If that is not a message of hope in the face of uncertainty, I don’t know what is. And we should all be proud to be playing a continuing role in fortifying these communities and contributing to their enduring strength.

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