The AJC ACCESS delegation visiting Chile in April 2014

The AJC ACCESS delegation visiting Chile in April 2014

This past April, I spent a week in Chile with a delegation of Jewish activists from across the globe on an AJC ACCESS young leaders mission.

Organized by ACCESS and AJC’s Latino and Latin American Institute, the trip allowed our group with roots in Israel, Bolivia, Brazil, and cities across the United States to become intensely connected to the local Jewish community and its challenging reality.

Young leaders like Yonathan Nowogrodsky, who heads the Youth Department at the Jewish Community of Chile (CJCh), illuminated for us a deeply rooted community that is proud of its contributions to Chilean society but at times grappling with its place in it.

Reflecting on our time in Chile, I’m moved to highlight this tension – because I see in it a reflection of the early American Jewish experience. But, the challenge – negotiating the public role of the Jewish community – also presents opportunities.

After a well-known Chilean comedian joked on national television that “Jews burned better than wood,” Simon Blum, Chair of the Jewish Student Federation, joined forces with Fundación Iguales to organize a short-film festival competition that asked entries to focus on “diversity, tolerance, and respect issues in Chilean society.” The campaign, which they launched with this amazing video, generated widespread participation and public interest and initiated conversations in government and social media.

However exciting and inspiring this kind of public advocacy is, it does not necessarily extend to other issues.

Chile is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora community outside the Middle East, approximately 400,000 people. It is highly influential and well-connected in government and the private sector. In recent years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the major issue that defines the relationship between the two communities. Take the proposed Israel-Chile free trade agreement, for example. With the Palestinian community opposed to the deal, the agreement is stalled in the Chilean Congress.

The young Chilean Jewish leaders we met such as Yonathan, Simon, and many others understand that they have a tremendous opportunity to impact the public discourse by building thoughtful partnerships within their society. Our delegation, accompanied by our young Chilean Jewish partners, had a first-ever meeting and dialogue with over twenty young members of the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ new diplomatic corps, many of whom intend to specialize in Middle East affairs as they launch their careers.

Problems are tackled swiftly with creativity and a desire to make a difference. Our visit even helped address a lingering issue: every year hundreds of Israeli backpackers in the south of Chile become the target of negative stereotyping.  An Israeli member of our delegation, moved to action, is spearheading an initiative together with the local Jewish community that will encourage Israeli travelers to volunteer in the local communities they visit, thus countering these prejudices.

The collaboration didn’t end there. Just a week after our trip, the coastal city of Valparaíso experienced one of the most devastating fires in its history. Our group immediately mobilized to help, establishing an online crowd-funding campaign. We are proud that we exceeded our set goal and raised enough funds to rebuild a home for a displaced family and to provide a face for humanitarian aid.

Chilean Jews – and so many young Jews worldwide – want and need the tools to foster relationships with emerging leaders in their countries so that the critical groundwork and foundation for understanding, dialogue and partnership is laid early. For Jewish communities that feel more isolated by geography, politics or demographics, this need is especially intense. That is why I am inspired to lend my support, and where AJC and ACCESS can help by connecting young Jews together across our global networks.

These experiences reaffirmed for me that as Jews – no matter where we may live – we are each responsible in some way for one another. This is how AJC ACCESS connects young Jewish leaders around the world and catalyzes us to action.

To learn more about AJC ACCESS, please visit www.ajcaccess.org

Jeremiah Baronberg, Business Development Manager at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP, serves as Co-Chair of ACCESS Global, the young professionals program of AJC, which works to enhance the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel and to advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and around the world.