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Emissaries from Americas tackle critical issues affecting Diaspora communities

“The greatest challenge these men and woman face is how to transmit Judaism to people with no connection,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum.

Israel's Honorary Consul General in Cancún Nathan Yisrael; Rabbi Eli Bari, chief rabbi of Cancún; Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman, head of the department of spiritual services, World Zionist Organization; Gabriel Gorisnik , president of the Cancún Jewish Community; Rabbi Kenneth Brander; and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum. Credit: Ohr Torah Stone.
Israel's Honorary Consul General in Cancún Nathan Yisrael; Rabbi Eli Bari, chief rabbi of Cancún; Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman, head of the department of spiritual services, World Zionist Organization; Gabriel Gorisnik , president of the Cancún Jewish Community; Rabbi Kenneth Brander; and Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum. Credit: Ohr Torah Stone.

Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel emissary training programs brought together 42 of its North, Central and South American emissaries in Cancún, Mexico, to address ways to tackle critical issues affecting smaller Diaspora Jewish communities, including conversion, assimilation and how to educate a generation of Jews with virtually no connection to Judaism.

Participants in the three-day conference hailed from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador and Ecuador shared best practices and discussed the communal and personal challenges they face in their daily work. American participants came from Englewood, N.J.; Sharon, Mass.; Charleston, S.C.; Palo Alto, Calif.; Denver, Colo.; Omaha, Neb.; Detroit; and Miami and Aventura, Fla.

“The greatest challenge these men and woman face is how to transmit Judaism to people with no connection. We work with these exceptional rabbis and educators to provide them with the training, development and support to be successful emissaries in their communities,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum, director of the Straus-Amiel and Beren-Amiel programs. “But an equally important part of our job is to support these families so they can stay in their communities for longer periods of time and continue to make a difference in the lives of Jews everywhere.”

Founded in 1983, Ohr Torah Stone is a Modern Orthodox network of 27 institutions working to transform Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide.

Rabbi Nir Koren, leader of the 1,000-member Jewish Community of Ecuador, with its synagogue in the capital of Quito, said “we have four generations of Jewish assimilation. There is a big gap in Jewish education with each of these groups and many issues that have never been treated.”

“We have 250 families in the main synagogue, but it is an aging population,” said Rabbi Yosef Garmon, the spiritual leader in Guatemala City, Guatemala. “About 40 pass away each year, while we have about 20 marriages a year. Of that group, more than half leave the country. For us, the sustainability of this community will come from outside. So far this year, seven families have emigrated here from Venezuela because of the poor living conditions there. We could bring and support 100 or 150 more with the right help.”

In Ottawa, Canada, Rebbetzin Shifra Sher told the group that a critical part of keeping members of the 325-family Congregation Machzeki Hadas engaged in programming is finding significant roles for women in synagogue and communal life.

“Women need to feel they can contribute in a significant way. If not, we will lose them and most likely their families as well,” she said. “People of all levels of observance need to feel close to the shul because it is the center of the community for Jews in smaller communities. We must engage all elements of our community so they feel close.”

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