Jewish Education and Young Activism in Bolivia

Blog

Nico Riethmüller is Director and Editor of El Diario Judío, an online Jewish newspaper that gathers 150 Jewish columnists and has more than 20,000 views each month, based on social critiques, diversity and justice.

Besides telling my experience of the Micro Grant, this is simply the story of one of my best experiences of my life. I used my Micro Grant to go to Bolivia, maybe the least western country in Latin America. This is also a country with a past consisting of a great and big Jewish community which now has fewer than one thousand remaining who are divided between three different cities. What was once a community of around 25,000 people, today we optimistically count 100 Jews in La Paz, another 100 in Cochabamba, and maybe 500 in Santa Cruz—the only Jewish community in Bolivia which is growing and not shrinking.

I decided to go and find all the young Jewish people that I could, knocking on every door of families, communities and every institution in existence. I planned my trip in order to do intense networking while I was teaching and facilitating educational activities for every age group, for free. The main subjects were Diversity, Israel and the Middle East.

My greatest experience took place in Cochabamba. Together with the Directory of the community, we organized three activities during one week. After the first gathering, which was supposed to be with young people discussing diversity, homosexuality and marijuana legalization, suddenly I was surrounded with grandparents. I specifically went out with the only two young people who attended to talk about what was going on with young Jews in Bolivia. We were getting ourselves together for five days, in every occasion adding somebody else. I told them about the projects I was involved in with the Federation of Jewish Students in Chile and they were completely inspired and motivated.

After making a presentation on Institutional and International Jewish Activism to the community after a Sunday lunch, I introduced the desire of a new group of five students, between the ages of 18 and 24, to found the first Federation of Jewish Students in Bolivia. It would be supervised by and organized from Cochabamba, and gather representatives and collaborators also in Santa Cruz and La Paz. The community was absolutely inspired by and supportive of the initiative, and one of the Directors even agreed to act as direct Consultant. The President in Cochabamba affirmed this initiative will bring life to all of our community. They are already working on new social and cultural projects for young Bolivian people in university to replace the name of Jewish and Israel in Bolivian society, and they already made their first social campaign. The new Federation is also approaching to be part of the World Union of Jewish Students, and is a key step in reinstating the old Federations of Jewish Students in Latin America. Magic was made, and the first group of young Bolivian Jewish students is now activating.

In Cochabamba, I also had the opportunity to officiate Kabbalat Shabbat service, one of my favorite things to do. The synagogue was so beautiful. It was made in 1947 for a community of 5,000 mainly-German immigrants, with incredible German gothic architecture. The experience was so meaningful that I was invited again for Pesach to officiate their main festivities, especially hired by the Directive of the community. I officiated the tefila on Monday, the communitarian seder on Tuesday, several gatherings with the students from the Federation, a rikudim class on Thursday, and officiated Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday. This professional advancement has been very significant for all of my objectives, even in my amateur Chazzanut. It was another awesome week that was possible with the previously mentioned ROI Micro Grant.

In Santa Cruz, I organized three activities with the community throughout the week: comparing diversity in Israeli and Bolivian society with teenagers, discussing activism and social change with young adults, and comparing Middle East political scenarios from the last 100 years with adults. Having this experience was very significant for me. Bolivian society is one of the most conservative “western” societies I have ever experienced. As I’m used to happening in my classes and activities, on every occasion, somebody felt uncomfortable with one of the many things that I was saying. But that is precisely the objective, to get people out of their comfort zones, to set new questions in people’s minds. Intensive networking took place all the time, continuing the educational mission by getting them inside El Diario Judio’s audience.

The rest of the time, I had the opportunity to travel through Bolivia and met many Jewish tourists, especially Argentineans and Chileans—key people to get involved as columnists in El Diario Judío, or to help me catch interesting people to write and help expand the publication. I also met lots of Israeli tourists who were fascinated with the website. I met and especially gathered with many people who are now helping me to expand my online Jewish newspaper by introducing me to new columnists, and by getting new email addresses to grow my database. I have now more than 20 new columnists from this trip, and I’m already planning my next mission to go further with Jewish education and networking.

These are not only words—I felt so inspired and blessed by this opportunity, taking a huge step in my career and mission to going further in Jewish activism through all Latin America.