From Argentina to Mexico, A Jewish Leader’s Light Burns Bright

May 9, 2012


“Judaism is a spark in my heart and I feel committed to bringing it to others,” says Dr. Daniel Fainstein, a proud Jewish leader in Mexico who is the Dean and a Professor of Jewish Studies and Education at the Hebrew University of Mexico, Latin America’s only Jewish academic college.

Maybe that’s one reason he has been Jewishly involved for the majority of his life, and in JDC’s Leatid program in Latin America for almost 25 years.

Leatid is one of JDC’s longest-running leadership initiatives: most of the new generation of lay and professional leaders in Latin America and Europe have benefited from the seminars, management courses, planning sessions, and in-service training provided by JDC since 1988 through Leatid Latin America, and since 1992 through Leatid Europe. It is a landmark leadership program, strengthening cultural identity and community connections for tens of thousands of Jews throughout the years.

Dr. Daniel Fainstein, who completed his PH.D suma cum laudae in Political and Social Sciences at the Mexican National University, UNAM with a dissertation on the public dimension of Jewish religious thought, has been involved as a professor in the Leatid program for Directors and is now participating in the Leatid Top Leaders program. He has taught modules on a variety of topics, including the connection between identity and Jewish texts; Jewish perspectives on the life cycle; and past and present challenges to Jewish life. “We all have multiple dimensions and Judaism is critically important to my sense of self,” he says.

Daniel is originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he grew up in a practicing Jewish home, was active in the Zionist youth movement, and went from camper to Director of Education at the local Camp Ramah. But his most important Jewish influence (beside his parents) was his former mentor, Rabbi Marshal Meyer; he studied at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary “M. T. Meyer”, and then went on to the Jerusalem Fellows Program of the Mandel School and Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He got involved with JDC when he returned from Israel and began training lay leaders and professionals working in the Jewish community. Since then he’s developed a specialization in professional development for those heading up Jewish communities throughout Latin America.

“I believe the need for excellent volunteer and professional leadership is the Jewish community’s greatest challenge,” says Daniel. Taking part in JDC’s leadership programs in Latin America is one way he feels instrumental in helping attract the best and the brightest to paving the future of Jewish life—something he holds near to his heart. “Judaism has a lot to teach us about creative continuity and relevance, because our long history teaches us how imaginative we need to be to survive.”

Daniel moved to Mexico in 1999, and though the Jewish community is smaller there than in Argentina, for him it is just as vibrant. Over 40,000 Jews reside in Mexico, primarily in the capital, Mexico City. The diverse community is well organized and nearly everyone is somehow involved or affiliated: 85% of Jews are members of synagogues and organizations; 90% of the children study in Jewish schools. As the community is largely self-sustaining, JDC acts as a partner and community development expert in Mexico, inviting leaders to Latin American events and taking part in strategic planning for some of the organizations, to ensure the community plans for its future.

Daniel is an important player in this effort, as he not only participates frequently in Leatid but also speaks and mediates at the bi-annual Latin American General Assembly (being held this November in Ecuador), where representatives from Jewish communities across the region gather to network and learn from each other. He especially relishes the opportunity to connect with leaders of smaller communities from the continent and strategize solutions for their unique challenges and how they can flourish with limited resources. He knows most of the communities personally. “I feel strongly connected to Jewish life in Latin America. It is a very dynamic community,” he says.

Asked which aspects of Jewish life he emphasizes to budding leaders who strive to stay relevant in their communities, Daniel has a quick answer from the heart. “There are so many possible dimensions and entry points to Judaism—spirituality, culture, history. I think it has a lot to offer in a world consumed with commodities. I think the main commodity in the world today needs to be meaning and Judaism can give us that.”

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