From left: Nathan Yisrael, Rabbi Eli Bari, chief rabbi of Cancun, Rabbi Yehiel Wasserman, head of spiritual services, WZO, RAbbi Kenneth Brander, and Gabiel Gorisnik, president of the Cancun Jewish Community.

Ohr Torah Stone’s Beren-Amiel and Straus-Amiel emissary training programs brought together 42 of its North, Central, and South American emissaries to address ways to tackle critical issues affecting mainly smaller Diaspora Jewish communities. There was unanimity among the group that the most significant issues they face in their communities are conversion, rampant assimilation, and how to educate a generation of Jews with virtually no connection to Judaism.

“This is the best of times in that Jews are seeking spirituality, yet the worst of times because there is more assimilation in these communities than we have ever seen,” said Ohr Torah Stone president and rosh ha’yeshiva, Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander. “The rabbis and rabbanits, teachers, and educators in this room are on the front lines of the battle for Jewish souls. They are a Modern Orthodox army giving their lives to change the Jewish world. There is a new energy out in the field, and it is a direct result of the rabbis who’ve studied at our Straus-Amiel program, and educators who’ve trained at our Beren-Amiel training programs.”

Participants in the three-day conference hailed from the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Guatemala, Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, and Ecuador, and shared best practices and discussed both the communal and personal challenges they face in their daily work. U.S. participants came from Englewood, NJ; Sharon, MA; Charleston, SC; Palo Alto, CA; Denver, CO; Omaha, NE; Detroit, MI; and Miami and Aventura, FL.

The group participated in sessions focusing on why Jews assimilate, how to understand the assimilated and reach them, how to cultivate a curiosity for Torah learning in children and adults, how to set rules for a community or shul for congregants who are not yet observant, the rabbinate and politics (the pros and cons of involvement in community and national politics), how to bring Jews closer in a small community, working alongside a multitude of outreach organizations, and how to keep in touch with people who only come to synagogue once a year.

“The greatest challenge these men and women 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 Eliahu 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. Many of these communities would not have Modern Orthodox synagogues and educators were it not for our emissaries’ work.”

“In my community, 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,” said Rabbi Nir Koren, the spiritual leader of the 1,000-member Jewish community of Ecuador, the synagogue in its capital, Quito. “We also have a situation where we have non-halachic Jews coming to synagogue and community events who want to participate because they feel Jewish. We need to learn how to carefully navigate this.”

“We have 250 families in the main synagogue, but it is an aging population. About 40 pass away each year, while we have about 20 marriages a year. Of that group, more than half leave the country,” said Rabbi Yosef Garmon, the spiritual leader in Guatemala City, Guatemala. “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 a focus on 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.”

The Straus-Amiel rabbinical emissary training program and the Beren-Amiel educational emissary training programs are committed to the spiritual continuity of the Jewish people everywhere, training rabbis and educators to effectively strengthen Jewish identity and existence in more than 160 communities across the Diaspora. Upon completing the program, participants receive a certificate as well as placement in a Diaspora community, followed by ongoing support and training via email, newsletters, phone calls, visits, regional seminars, and international conferences, for as long as they remain in the field.

Founded in 1983, Ohr Torah Stone is a Modern Orthodox network of 27 institutions that are transforming Jewish life, learning, and leadership worldwide. For more information, visit OTS.org.il.

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