Around the Jewish World
Mexico's Hebraic University tries to
stem crisis of Jewish education in Latin America.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Mexico Ci t y
ewish education in Latin Arrierica
is facing a crisis, and a small Uni-
versity is trying to stem it.
Mexico City's Hebraic University,
the only government-accredited Jewish
university in Latin America, is posi-
tioning itself to serve communities
thousands of miles away through
Internet-based courses, traveling semi-
nars and other international initiatives.
"In 10 years, we want to become the
center of Jewish academic life in Latin
America," said university director
Daniel Fainstein. "Our target popula-
tion is not just Mexico, but the entire
At a time when economic and politi-
cal turmoil throughout Latin America
has left Jewish communities with fewer
people and resources, many are strug-
gling to recruit new teachers and pro-
vide veterans with up-to-date training.
"We are very worried," said Edith
Blaustein, executive director of the
Vaad Hajinuj, or board of Jewish edu-
cation, in Chile. "I believe the region
is going to suffer a shortfall of ade-
quately trained teachers."
The overwhelming majority of
Jewish children in Latin America
attend Jewish schools, and a shortage
of qualified teachers could have a dev-
astating impact on communities in the
region, education leaders said.
Since Fainstein, an Argentine native,
joined the Hebraic University in fall
2002, the institution has embarked on
a major academic restructuring effort,
headed by Judit Bokser Liwerant of
the National Autonomous University
of Mexico (UNAM). What started as
a way to improve Jewish education in
Mexico now has become an interna-
"We realized that in a global world
you can't shut yourself in your own com-
munity, so we've widened our goal,"
Fainstein said. The aim now is to reach
even to Miami and Spain, in addition to
Spanish-speaking Latin America.
The university has formed official
alliances with universities such as
UNAM and the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem and is looking to expand its
global ties. In the last academic year, it
began an aggressive campaign to bring
top scholars from around the world to
lead seminars in Mexico City.
The university plans to send groups
of Latin American students to Israel and
the United States for workshops soon.
Paul Mendes-Flohr, a member of
the university's international adviso-
ry board and a professor at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
applauds Fainstein's initiative. "The
world Jewish community is support-
ing this very ambitious project," said
Mendes-Flohr. He said Fainstein,
whom he called "an extraordinarily
gifted educational leader," deserves
Daniel Fainstein: A global view.
credit for the project.
"There is an urgent need to revital-
ize Jewish intellectual life in Latin
America, and he's taken it upon him-
self to do that," Mendes-Flohr said.
For a year, the Hebraic University has
occupied new quarters in the Lomas
de Chamizal neighborhood of Mexico
City, in the same hilltop complex as
the Sephardi community's headquar-
ters and synagogue, Shar Hashamaim.
With a new location and a new mis-
sion, the university hardly resembles
what it once was.
The school began in 1964 as a
teachers' college, the Morot Seminar.
Its name was changed to the
University Institute of Hebrew
Culture. The school became an
accredited university in 1992 through
Mexico's Secretariat of Public
Education. It offers bachelor's and
master's degrees in education, and the
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programs combine course
work in education with
classes in Jewish thought
The university also offers
courses for educators and
extension courses, like
"Jewish Spirituality" and
"The Hebrew Bible: A
Literary Perspective." The
university has 125 full-
About 90 percent of
graduates teach in Mexico's
17 Jewish schools, 15 of
which are in Mexico City.
During the past year,
university officials met with Jewish
school principals to determine how
the university could better serve them.
"We realized that the university wasn't
providing what the schools needed,
and there needed to be a change," said
Carlos Jinich, president of the Hebraic
University's board of directors.
Amelie Esquenazi, principal of the
Sephardic Hebrew School in Mexico
City, said it's not easy to find qualified
teachers. "For me, it was important that
the university expand its role," she said.
'And it's clear that's happening now." _
Teaching is not a popular profession
among Jews in Mexico, where the
average teach-er salary is the equivalent
of $10,000 a year, Fainstein said.
"Teaching has a lack of prestige in
the Jewish community," he said.
"Unlike in other countries, there is
not a development of a middle-class
intellectual life in Mexico."
Jessica Memun, 24, a first-year
student, hopes to become a kinder-
garten art teacher at a Jewish school
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