Rabbi Mendy Weitman, 26

Rabbi Mendy Weitman, 26

Making a space for Latin American Jews

A native of Brazil and former resident of Argentina, Rabbi Mendel Weitman heard the same thing over and over upon his move to New York four years ago: young Jewish men and women, mostly professionals and college students from his continent, would come here, attend synagogue services or some other Jewish function, feel ill at ease in an unfamiliar and often unwelcoming culture, and drop out of Jewish life. They didn’t feel at home.

So Rabbi Weitman decided to create a “home away from home.”

The result is the year-old Latin Jewish Center (jewishlatincenternyc.org), a religious-educational-social program based at the Chabad of Gramercy Park in Manhattan.

It’s shlichus (a mission) for the Chabad-trained rabbi and his wife Frumie. “I saw a big need,” he says.

The center, with the blessing of Gramercy Park’s Rabbi Naftali Rotenstreich, offers classes, holiday celebrations, social gatherings, a Jewish Youth Club, a weekly e-mailed “Torah Thought,” and Shabbat services followed by a communal meal.

“I’m following in the footsteps of my father,” a Chabad shaliach in Brazil, Rabbi Weitman says. “He helped build a community.”

Rabbi Weitman is raising funds for a building for the Latin Jewish Center.

“With God’s help,” he says, the center will soon have its own space.

More than 120 South American Jews come to the center’s Shabbat services; the e-mail list has grown to 600. But there’s plenty of work ahead of him. “Tens of thousands” of Jews from South America live in the New York area, Rabbi Weitman says. “Not even 2 percent” have taken part in center activities. “We have a long way to go.”

Rabbi’s soccer pitch: Like most Brazilians, Rabbi Weitman is a soccer fan. He plans to host World Cup-finals events in July.

High on Pesach: He assisted the largest-in-the-world, Chabad-run seder in Katmandu, Nepal, three years ago. More than 1,500 people, mostly young Israelis, come annually.

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