Baltimore Trip Provides Life-Changing Experience for Latin American Teens

With continued economic and political unrest in Venezuela, life has become increasingly difficult for Jewish teen, Mojilif Benzaquen, and his family.

Many in his Jewish community have fled looking for a better future elsewhere and he admits he is often scared that things will get worse.

That’s why, this summer, provided a rare glimmer of hope for this young man, fortunate to travel to Baltimore to participate in Or Haner, a month-long summer camp in Baltimore for Latin American teens. He, along with eight other Venezuelans, were part of a group of 94 campers and counselors from Costa Rica, Monterrey, Mexico and Mexico City, here to interact with one another and deepen their Jewish identities.

For many, this once-in-a-lifetime experience was possible because of a grant made to Or Haner, which provided financial scholarships from The Associated’s Global Peoplehood Committee. In line with Jewish values of responsibility for all Jews, the committee allocates resources to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and strengthen Jewish communities around the world. This program provides an opportunity for Latin American teens to socialize with other Jews and understand what Jewish life looks like in other communities.

Costa Rican camper, Joel Familier, comes from a country with an incredibly small Jewish community. “Being Jewish in my country is difficult because of the size,” Familier said. “I come from a place where there are no more than 25 people in my age group who are Jewish.”

Jews in Monterrey, Mexico are facing similar challenges. Over the years, the Monterrey Jewish community has dwindled, and today, the Jewish day school is 80 percent non-Jewish. As the only Jewish boy in his class, Jose Rosenfeld explains that most of the people in his community are elders, and there are not many teens with whom he can hang out.

“Going to Baltimore this summer was an incredible experience. I was able to live with Jews from four different communities. For me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Rosenfeld said.

During their visit, teens dedicated mornings toward learning about Judaism and afternoons traveling around the region, socializing and exploring Jewish life here. They visited the Owings Mills JCC on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat and baked challah and played soccer with TNT (Top Notch Teen) campers at J Camps.

Another day, they heard from Malka, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Weinberg Village. Later, they traveled to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC.

“This was particularly inspiring because so many of these teens are Sephardic and have never met a Holocaust survivor before,” explained Mauricio Friedman, former camper and director of Or Haner.

Many of those who participated were impressed with Baltimore’s Jewish community and the fact that Jews don’t have to hide their identity.

“One of the most powerful things about the program and Baltimore was the experience of getting to know Jews from other countries. I came out with a feeling that I don’t need to be ashamed or scared of being a Jew,” said Familier.

“The number of Jews living in Baltimore surprised me,” added Raphael Missrie, a counselor from Mexico City who says life in his community is very traditional. “The amazing people you have, they are so generous and kind. And, the Seven Mile Market is one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.”

Noticing The Associated’s signs throughout the community and experiencing firsthand the impact The Associated has on the Baltimore Jewish community, the teens were fascinated by how much was accomplished by Baltimore’s Jewish organizations.

“What impressed me most about Baltimore is the abundance of help offered to its [community] members and the strong bond between Jews,” said Benzaquen. “I loved meeting teens from Baltimore and learning about their ways of thinking.”

As one of the few Venezuelan Jews to take advantage of this opportunity, Benzaquen was particularly fortunate. Several of his peers, who were slated to come on the trip had to pull out at the last minute – two because they never received their visas and one who could no longer afford the airfare because of skyrocketing inflation.

“We are so proud that the Global Peoplehood Committee was able to provide two years of scholarships for this life-changing experience. We were able to give Latin American teens the opportunity to experience Jewish life in Baltimore, practice their Judaism freely and interact with our Baltimore Jewish youth. Our teens, the campers from Latin America, and everyone who spent time with them have a stronger understanding of global Jewry from this experience,” said Shelly Malis, co-chair of the Associated’s Israel and Overseas committee.

A letter from one of the parents of Venezuelan participants best summed up the program and their appreciation for The Associated.

"My wife and I want to thank The Associated that helped us. We are very grateful and happy that the children had a great time. We are sure that G-d helped us and The Associated were his emissaries."

Adds Benzaquen, “It’s hard to express what we feel. There are no words for the help that you provided us with and the opportunity you gave us.”

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