Historically, the multi-functionality of Israel for Latin American communities as identity referent, organizational axis, and energy catalyst for building communal life has been determinant. However, both these functions and the traditional pillars of Israel-Diaspora relations – its institutional channels and the types of connection – have changed.
For Latin American Jews, besides its condition of national sovereign and creative cultural center, Israel has historically been a vital space for those in need. While regional and national trends point to dependency of Aliyah (and Jewish migration in general) on the unfolding of specific local circumstances, varying recurring economic crises, and political unrest; ideological attachment has also played an important role.
Data on Mexico shows that while 97 percent of the Jewish community’s older members (individuals 70 years old, for instance) express the belief that Israel is of utmost importance, only 77 percent of the young population (18-19 year-olds) report the same belief. These percentages are far higher if we compare them with opinions expressed by members of other Latin American communities. In Argentina, the percentage of those who expressed the belief that Israel is of utmost importance diminished to 57 percent.
Data on Jews living in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela show that both age (generation) and country of origin influence the place of Israel in people’s lives and their attachment to it. Mexico has exceptionally high rates of visits to Israel while lower rates characterize Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Latin American Jewish migration to the United States implies an altered posture vis-à-vis the connection to Israel. A geographically diverse transnationalism replaces older binary connections between Latin American Jews and Israel. That does not necessarily imply the weakening of attachments but rather their re-signification. There is a departure from the previous dominant pattern of almost exclusive interaction with Israel or Israel-Zionist based organizations, as North American Jewish institutions become an important source of direct political support and a model for collective organization for Latin American communities.
Education has played a central role in the shaping of Latin American Jewish life. It has constituted the main field for shaping and displaying Jewish collective identity. Whereas the centrality of Israel cannot be denied, and main aspects of the educational system are interwoven with it, today, historical, political and ideological currents that differentiated schools in Latin America have been replaced by religious and communitarian (sub-ethnic) criteria, in consonance with world Jewish trends.
Looking at the educational ecology, the highest rate of population growth takes place in the religious schools. While acknowledging the fact that this trend is related to the incidence of community social policies on communal cultural profiles − as expressed in the massive support offered through scholarships by religious schools − it also must to be noted that this process reflects an increase in religiosity and observance.
Argentina is characterized by its comprehensive community school system, which has grown in spite of the various crises it has suffered since the 1990s. Today’s 34 day schools have an enrollment of 22,000 students. The highest rate of population growth takes place in the Orthodox-Haredi religious schools. In total numbers these schools experienced an increase of almost 49 percent in the last ten years.
In Mexico, 9,500 children, close to 93 percent, attend the 16 Jewish schools of a diversified and highly structured educational system. More than 30 percent of the student population benefit from scholarships; more than 40 percent do so in the Haredi schools. The latter, serving 26 percent of the student population, show the highest growth: 55 percent in the last decade.
In São Paulo, the largest, traditionally liberal community in Brazil, five religious schools have been founded recently. Moreover, Orthodox teachers have a growing presence in Jewish secular schools.
The increase in the number of students in religious schools reflects the demographic changes in the composition of the communities, the arrival of educators coming from intensively Orthodox South American communities, and the overall trend in Jewish education.
Educational trips to Israel are a relevant part of the cultural and institutional practices for which Israel is conceived to be a site for the symbolic encoding of meanings and the formation of a sense of belonging, while awareness of an interconnected Jewish world is strengthened. Both the State of Israel and Eretz Israel are foci for a diversified population. Jewish educational ecology, in-group sociability patterns and communal affiliation act as central factors behind the close relation between modes of Jewish life and types of educational trips.
These trips are closely related to the institutional density, the social capital and the communal legacy of the diverse communities. Jewish educational ecology and communal institutional density act as central variables. While Mexican youth have visited Israel in the framework of the school system, they also have a subsequent stronger presence in long-term programs and, therefore, reduced representation in the framework of Taglit. Concomitantly, it explains the latter’s success in Argentina and Brazil − in larger Jewish communities with lower levels of Jewish education attendance and similar rates of intermarriage. However, Jewish education still explains why, in spite of lower affiliation rates, there is a strong cultural component among Jewish families. Families of participants are engaged and related to the Jewish community. While in Argentina 86 percent feel very connected to Israel, in Brazil this percentage only reaches 20 percent.
Religion shows a noteworthy strengthening not only in the educational field, but also in overall community life. In the last few years, paired with changing trends in world Jewish life, Orthodox groups have formed new religious congregations. Religion played a minor role in what were basically secular communities and its status was further diminished by the scarcity of religious functionaries, a factor that dates back to the earliest days of Latin American Jewry.
However, new rabbinical leadership has emerged in the different religious streams. The Conservative Movement has continued to provide – through its Buenos Aires-based Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano – rabbis that serve throughout Latin America and also in U.S. communities. This phenomenon not only results from a lack of opportunities available in local communities, but also reflects the wider phenomenon of regional migration from the South to the North.
Today, the spread of Chabad and the establishment of Chabad centers, both in the large, well-established communities as well as in the smaller ones, is striking. The expanding presence of Shas and Aish Hatora in communities where the Sephardic and Mizrahi presence is dominant complements the picture (Mexico, Panama). There is a very important trend toward religious observance and Haredization. In Mexico, these trends were specifically analyzed among the population below 40 years of age and the figures for very observant went up from 7 to 12 percent; observants from 17 to 20 percent and traditionalist fell from 62 to 59 percent.
Religious developments not only respond to deep cultural and spiritual transformations but also to the reconstitution of the social fabric. Thus, religion acts not only as a moral code but also as an anchor of belonging and social order. Simultaneously, global flows also have a relevant influence in restructuring cultural life in the region.
Cultural changes have been registered in a more strictly defined intellectual field. Jewish writers, rabbis, and journalists have accessed national spheres and the media to function as cultural referents of the communities through newspaper columns and television programs.
This process of diversification and participation of Jewish intellectuals in the public communication spaces of, science, the academy, arts, popular music, and culture marks a new extraordinary presence.