Breaking down the wall between American and Mexican Jews

As media coverage abounds on issues such as President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico and cross-border drug trafficking, Jews living in the United States largely form their perceptions on Mexico based on those narratives.

At the same time, American Jews have traditionally been in tune with their counterparts to the north in Canada, but for the most part they know very little about Mexico’s Jewish community south of the border.

It’s a story which deserves much more attention from American Jewry.

On the one hand, the Mexican Jewish community is a small minority — 41,000 people out of the country’s total population of 129 million — mostly living in Mexico City, a capital with high crime rates and threats to personal safety. But on the other hand, it is a thriving community where 95 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools and members embody Jewish life in a pluralistic and empowering way.

In Mexico, almost half of Jewish children are involved in a youth movement and nearly every one of them spends the summer in Israel at age 16, either through school or their youth movement.

Consider that while knowing that in the Jewish community in the US, 53% of Jewish Millennials feel their connection to their Jewish identity is diminished when compared to their parents’ attachment, The Barna Group found in 2017. In fact, ever since the Pew Research Center published a high-profile study in 2013 which revealed that 22% of American Jews — including 32% of Millennials — describe themselves as having “no religion,” the subject of declining Jewish identity has remained at the forefront of communal priorities and concerns.

As American Jewry grapple with that challenge, Mexico’s Jewish community provides an unexpected paradigm for thriving Jewish life and meaningful connections with Israel. Even more powerfully, American Jews can relatively easily witness that paradigm in action firsthand.

Seizing this opportunity, The Jewish Agency for Israel is currently leading its first-ever mission to Mexico in order to provide a unique view into a community that puts a strong and successful focus on Jewish education, Jewish identity, and Israel engagement. To date, American Jews have lacked this thorough perspective on their southern neighbor. Now, they can start discussing a different kind of wall: the wall of unawareness between the American and Mexican Jewish communities, and the need to break it down.

The mission to Mexico represents the very essence of The Jewish Agency’s broader mission: to help people find their way into Jewish life and forge meaningful connections with Israel. The Jewish Agency puts this mission into action on the ground in Mexico in a variety of ways which advance those goals, including through the Jewish youth programs in Mexico supported and managed by Bitui, our educational resource center, which in partnership with the local Jewish community established a local organization with its own board that holds the provision of informal Jewish education; through the Oaxaca center of Project TEN, The Jewish Agency program that brings young Jewish adults from around the world to volunteer in Israel or developing regions; through the successful 15-year partnership between Mexico-Eshkol-and Northeastern New York as part of The Jewish Agency’s Partnership2Gether Peoplehood Platform; through the work of local Jewish Agency shlichim (Israeli emissaries) in different Mexican communities; and through the experiences of Mexican young adults who have experienced Israel with Jewish Agency partner programs such as Birthright Israel and Masa Israel Journey.

Those attending the mission will get an up-close look at that wide range of programming. They will return to the US with new insights which can enhance Jewish life and connections to Israel in their own communities.

This trip represents an unprecedented opportunity to learn and to be inspired right in the backyard of the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. The Jewish future in Mexico is a bright one, and as American Jews face defining questions about their own community, they would be well-served taking a page from the playbook of their brothers and sisters to the south. May’s mission is a crucial step in that journey.

For just a moment, consider putting off yet another round in the heated debate about the border wall. Instead, redirect that energy towards breaking down the wall of unawareness standing between American and Mexican Jews.

About the Author
Danielle Mor is Vice President for Israel and Global Philanthropy at the Jewish Agency for Israel. She is staffing the mission to Mexico on behalf of the Jewish Agency.
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