In Latin America, Partnering with Local Communities to Build a Vibrant Jewish Future

For JDC Board Member Susan Knapp, virtual missions are a chance to engage with the global Jewish community even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Susan Knapp - JDC Board Member | November 10, 2020

The 2019 JDC Board mission to Argentina poses for a photo. The author, Susan Knapp, is fourth from the right.

I first got to know JDC when I was in Bulgaria for a family wedding a few years back. My husband and I knew someone who worked at JDC, and they were able to set up a whole itinerary for us, enabling us to get to know that country’s Jewish community in a way we could never have done if left to our own devices. It was fabulous — a real highlight of our trip.

We visited the Jewish preschool in Sofia, toured the city’s beautiful old synagogue, and met with committed activists, including the leaders of the country’s religious and secular Jewish communities. Our JDC itinerary gave us an exposure to and understanding of the organization’s work in rebuilding and strengthening Eastern European Jewish communities like Bulgaria’s.

Susan Knapp

I had studied in Moscow for four months in graduate school, which was my last exposure to that part of the world — fall 1981. When we visited Bulgaria for the wedding, some parts of the country did feel like what I expected from Eastern Europe, but Sofia was certainly vibrant. I left impressed by the Bulgarian Jewish community’s commitment to the future and dedication to understanding their history.

Returning home, we decided JDC was something we wanted to get to know better. What appealed to us was the important work the organization did; simply put, the mission captured us. When we began to understand how committed its Board members are to the work, too, that further impressed us — they’re more interested in the mission than in glamour or in posh fundraisers. When you meet a JDC person, you’re always struck by how connected they are to the soul of the work.

JDC is about helping Jews in need, and it’s also about using our Jewish values as a springboard for helping others in crisis, too. I appreciate that JDC is not inward- and outward-looking but forward-looking.

Once I joined the Board, I found my niche in JDC’s Latin America work. I’ve always been connected to that part of the world, since I spent most of my career in finance working in that region and speak Spanish and Portuguese fluently. Across Latin America, JDC works to provide assistance to the most vulnerable Jews, build local capacity, and develop the next generation of leaders.

JDC is about helping Jews in need, and it’s also about using our Jewish values as a springboard for helping others in crisis.

I was thrilled to get the chance to see all that in action when I traveled to Argentina on a Board mission last year. I’d been to Argentina a number of times before, but I’d spent most of my time in Buenos Aires. Getting the chance to go to the provinces and meet the communities there was eye-opening — here were Jewish communities really struggling to survive but also hungry to survive. People were proud to live there, even though it was hard. Argentina has been hit repeatedly with economic disaster, but time after time, we see its Jewish community’s dedication to self-help and mutual responsibility.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic difficulties found throughout Latin America have become that much more pronounced. In addition to offering direct assistance to the “new poor” and to historically vulnerable Jewish communities like Cuba’s, we’re focused on leadership development throughout the region with the goal of helping communities become more self-sufficient. Even with vast and severe needs, we’re committed to developing local leadership, too.

I’m always impressed, too, by what we’ve managed to do in Venezuela, which is in such bad shape these days. Against all odds, and despite great difficulty, JDC has partnered with the local community to ensure that every Jew’s basic needs are met. Our team is dedicated and hardworking, never saying no and always trying to figure out how to do more with less.

Susan Knapp (center, in patterned white jacket), on a 2019 JDC mission to Argentina.

These last few weeks, I’ve been honored to co-chair a virtual mission to Latin America, with stops in Venezuela, Cuba, and Argentina. I spent the summer of 1981 in Venezuela and returned to Caracas not long after for work. I haven’t been back since and am certainly not going anytime soon, so I was excited to get as close as possible to JDC’s work on the ground. It was a very special experience to meet the Jewish community’s heroes doing lifesaving work under impossible circumstances.

Virtual travel like our recent mission isn’t just a chance for JDC supporters to see what we’re doing. It’s also a way for the local communities to see how important they are to Jews around the world. They matter in a way that goes beyond sending a check. Virtual missions are a chance to show our fellow Jews around the world how interested in and concerned we are for their welfare.

JDC’s work is so important, and I hope more people continue to see the critical nature of what we do and become inspired to get involved with us. If I could start my JDC journey with a wedding in Bulgaria, my hope is that someone else can be inspired by a Zoom visit to any of the 70 countries where we work today.

Susan Knapp grew up in West Hartford, Conn., and graduated from Amherst College in 1980. She moved to Manhattan to pursue a Master’s Degree in International Affairs at Columbia. She recently retired from Moody’s Investors Service, where she was the Managing Director and Regional Head for Latin America, responsible for developing the company’s regional strategy throughout Latin America and directing the day-to-day operations of its offices in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Panama.

Susan joined the JDC Board two years ago and currently serves on the Executive Committee and as Chair of the Latin America Committee. Susan and her husband Charles live in Roxbury, Conn., and have been married for 29 years. They have two grown daughters who live in Brooklyn.

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