Five years ago, Rabbi Mendy Weitman could have moved anywhere in the world to pursue his dream of building a Jewish community as a Chabad Lubavitch emissary. But instead he chose to stay in New York, where he spotted a greater group in need of a community: Jewish immigrants from Latin America.
In 2009, Weitman and his wife, Frumie Weitman, started the Latin Jewish Center, a meeting place for Latin American Jews in New York and the metropolitan area. Today the center has nearly 1,500 members, who commonly describe it as “a home away from home.”
During its five years of existence, the Jewish Latin Center has organized and hosted an array of religious, cultural and social events — from hundreds of Sabbath dinners and the dedication of the community’s own Torah scroll in 2011, to presentations of such personalities as Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a founder of Hamas and star of the 2014 documentary “The Green Prince,” detailing his time as an Israeli spy.
Weitman, 30, has officiated at the weddings of about 20 couples within the community and actively uses his matchmaking skills to bring together Latin Jews.
Besides English, Hebrew and Yiddish, Weitman is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, languages that come in handy when communicating with the members of his community.
The Forward’s Mariana Cristancho-Ahn spoke to Weitman about the differences between Latin and American Jews and the future of the Latin Jewish Center.
Mariana Cristancho-Ahn: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing.
Mendy Weitman: I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where my parents were sent as Chabad Lubavitch emissaries. My father is the rabbi of the Congregation Beit Yaacov, in Sao Paulo. I studied at yeshiva in different places — Israel, France, New York and Argentina — and after six years of studies, I graduated from the Rabbinical College of America, in New Jersey.
How did you come up with the idea to start the Latin Jewish Center?
I used to teach Torah classes in the offices of some Brazilian Jewish businessmen in Manhattan. They kept introducing me to other Latin American Jews, and I noticed that there was a common complaint: People were looking for a synagogue, a community to be a part of, and they couldn’t find one.
They were looking for gathering places similar to the ones in their home countries, a place with Latin warmth. American synagogues tend to be a little too formal, a little too serious. So I noticed there was a need. Latin Americans Jews come from countries with solid communities. They want to belong to a community, get to know other people. So we started organizing Shabbat dinners, and little by little more and more people started to come. That’s how we started the Latin Jewish Center.
Who are the members of the Latin Jewish Center?
We have people from all countries in Latin America, but particularly from Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia. A good number of them are young professionals who moved to the Unites States after college. They have different backgrounds and cultures, but they all have a strong Jewish identity.
How has the Latin Jewish Center grown in the past five years?
We started very small. I remember when we were looking for the 10th person for the minyan during our services right before the High Holidays in 2009, and we couldn’t find him. By our first anniversary we had 900 people coming to our programs. Today we have about 1,500. I would say about 300 are very active. We usually have a packed house on Friday nights. People come for services, Shabbat dinners, classes during the week, workshops, seminars, activities, and it has been growing and growing.
How religious are they? Do they belong to particular branches of Judaism?
They are not extremely observant, but they want authentic Judaism and they want to be connected. They want to marry Jews. They might not be fully observant, but they come from very traditional homes. We don’t like to label Jews as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, because I believe labels are for suits and T-shirts. Latin Jews are not used to these divisions; they are all Jews, and they want to be connected to their faith.
What do you think they found in the Latin Jewish Center that they haven’t found anywhere else in New York, where there are so many Jewish organizations?
A few factors. Number one is the warm and the welcoming way of our community that makes people feel at home. Second, we also celebrate Shabbat, always adding a Latin flavor. Our services are performed in Hebrew, but we also have prayer books in English, Spanish and Portuguese. And third, Latin Jews have a space to meet other people like themselves.
How different are Latin American Jews from American Jews?
It’s a different culture, a different mentality. Latin Jews grew up in smaller communities that are more protective, perhaps because of their smaller sizes. They keep stronger Jewish values. The fact that they come from smaller communities makes them feel more responsible and more active.
Have some of the members of your community left their home countries in Latin America because of anti-Semitic persecution?
I don’t think I could say that anti-Semitism is the only factor for Latin Jews coming to New York. I believe there are more political and security reasons that matter. For instance, many Jews are coming out of Venezuela for different political reasons, and the number is increasing.
What has the center done to support people who have had to leave?
We are in constant contact with communities in countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil. We communicate with the rabbis, the chief community leaders, and they always contact us beforehand if someone is coming to help them to find a place, a roommate or jobs, and we try to accommodate them the best way possible.
What have been some of the main successes of the center?
The actual fact that we have been able to build a community from scratch, a community that keeps growing and that connects people in New York City.
We are trying to break the pattern of isolation and loneliness and bring people together in a community, bring them spiritual support and bring them closer to their faith. Sometimes life in New York City can be an overwhelming experience, so it is important to have this balance to live a good life. Today we even have people marrying and starting families.
What have been the major challenges of running the center?
Our main challenge is that we don’t yet have a permanent base, which makes it more difficult to operate the different activities and the Shabbat services. This is what we are looking forward to as a next step, to find a physical home which can be open 24 hours, 7 days a week.
What’s your vision for the center in the years to come? What are your goals?
Our goal is to continue building the community and reaching out to more people. We also hope to establish a center for international Jews to connect and network together, and a mentorship program where members of our community can share their professional experiences with young adults and teenagers from Latin American backgrounds in the city.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I’m not sure if people know, but the first Jews that came to America were Jews from Brazil. Back in 1654, a group of 23 Sephardic Jews from Brazil arrived to New Amsterdam and they founded what today is the largest community of Jews in the Diaspora. So we have this connection and we want to follow in the footsteps of these people. One of my dreams is to one day actually create some type of cultural space where we can tell this story to the Americans and to the world.
This interview has been edited for style and length.