After more than two decades of engaging with scholars, authors, artists and community members to develop “fresh ways of thinking about Jews and gender worldwide,” the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute is launching its newest initiative: the HBI Project in Latin American Jewish & Gender Studies.

Previous HBI initiatives include the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law in 2007 and the Project on Families, Children and the Holocaust in 2009. 

According to the HBI’s website, LAJGS is a “pioneering initiative for the study and exploration of Jewish life and gender in Latin America (Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean) and among Latin American Jewish immigrants worldwide.” In a joint interview with the Justice, Prof. Dalia Wassner (NEJS) and Mendy Bandel ’18 discussed the academic and cultural pursuits of LAJGS.

According to Wassner, Europe was a demographic center of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust, but the tragedy encompassed both individual losses of life and the loss of whole communities. “So not only, demographically, do you have Jews moving to Latin America,” she explained, “but also, the idea of who we are as a Jewish diaspora is shifting, and it’s important to consider different regions of the world that are now home to Jews that maybe weren’t in such higher numbers.” 

Additionally, Latin America has recently experienced a significant demographic shift: 50 years ago, it was home to over 500,000 Jews, but now has a population of less than 400,000. Wassner asked, “Why have those Jews left? What happens to the Jews that remain? How do those identities with those that stay evolve? How do those identities of those that leave, maintain themselves, evolve and change?” 

The HBI approved LAJGS last spring. Wassner, a research associate who is currently directing the project, created it after realizing that Brandeis would be the perfect institution to house it. “If we’re going to understand world Jewry … within Brandeis, [it] should include a robust and really serious component of Latin American Jewish Studies,” she said. She envisions LAJGS being “both an academic center of studying those Jews and a cultural center for bringing to life that culture from Jews of Latin America and from Latino Jews.”

Bandel, a student assistant for LAJGS, became involved in the project last summer. “My grandparents are Holocaust survivors, so I always felt that I had to do something,” said Bandel. He said coming to Brandeis “was a big culture shock,” describing the disparity between the small number of Latinx Jews on campus and the larger number in the Miami area where he used to live. Bandel explained that he is now happy to be able to play his part in raising awareness of the Jewish diaspora.

Bandel described his general role with LAJGS as assisting Wassner with whatever she needs. He develops fundraising and marketing strategies for the project, and creates and organizes work files to support its ongoing efficiency. Wassner sees Bandel as a “partner who understands all of these parts … [and] the value of this for Brandeis going forward.” With Bandel’s feedback and fine-tuning, Wassner was able to update and teach NEJS 132A,  “The Jews of Latin America,” this semester. The course, which Wassner believes is the first Near Eastern and Judaic Studies course on Latin American Jewish history, explores the multiple understandings of Jewishness that arose in Latin America from colonial times to the present through historical analysis of literature, theater and art. 

She emphasized that the course would not have been possible without Targum Shlishi, a foundation dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing contemporary Jewry that generously funded the course this year. 

Wassner went on to say that “a huge mission is to support the work of other scholars.” After securing enough funding, she hopes to invite others to apply to be scholars-in-residence within the project and receive all the accompanying benefits. They would be able to explore their own questions within the field, have research space, access the library, participate in conferences, give public lectures, submit their work for consideration to be published in the HBI’s series within the University Press and more. 

The University library has already created a database to support scholarly research within LAJGS topically and allocated $1,500 to purchase books within the field of study. 

Wassner and Bandel have participated in and planned a number of cultural events since the project was approved last spring. Most recently, on May 9 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts, HBI and the National Center for Jewish Film co-presented a sold-out screening of the award-winning documentary, “Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana.” The film, which explores the story of Jewish refugees who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and found a safe haven in Cuba, was followed by a Q&A with filmmakers Judy Kreith and Robin Truesdale, moderated by Wassner.

The fall 2018 launch event for LAJGS, “A Latin American Pen, A Global Memory: Imagining Anne Frank Today,” will take place on Nov. 1 at  Jewish Community Center of Greater Boston. Summarized on the HBI website, it will feature a “dramatic reading of Marjorie Agosín’s illustrated book ‘Anne: Imagining the Diary of Anne Frank’” and “a moderated conversation about the ongoing relevance of Anne Frank in Latin America.”

This winter, at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts, Wassner will moderate a conversation between Latinx rabbis and cantors. Wassner explained that this will show how Latin American Jews “are not just surviving and thriving but also, … in some cases, are leading American Jewish communities.”

Wassner and Bandel revealed they are collaborating with the Brandeis University Alumni Association and the Arts department to try to bring Ruth Behar to campus for next year’s Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts. The first Latina to win a MacArthur “genius” grant, Behar is an anthropologist and academic by training but also a storyteller, traveler, memoirist, poet, teacher and public speaker. “She’s really someone who embodies a lot of what the program is interested in supporting,” Wassner said. 

According to Wassner, the value of LAJGS comes from its combination of community involvement, cultural programs and academic exploration. A graduating senior, Bandel will not be there to personally experience it all, but he finds value in laying the groundwork of LAJGS for others to benefit from. He sees the project as an opportunity to “bring the whole Latin Jewish community together” by “having a space for people to express their Latin Jewry.”

 —Editor's Note: This article was updated to fix factual errors. The earlier version incorrectly identified the current Jewish population in Latin America as "only around 400,000," when it is actually "less than 400,000." Additionally, "scholars and residents" was corrected to be "scholars-in-residence." The sentence describing the benefits of being scholars-in-residence was changed to: "They would be able to explore their own questions within the field, have research space, access the library, participate in conferences, give public lectures, submit their work for consideration to be published in the HBI’s series within the University Press and more." Finally, the article originally incorrectly said the Theater Arts department was collaborating with the HBI to try to bring Ruth Behar to campus; this was corrected to the Arts department.