A Precious Moment in Chile

On and off campus

It was Erev Shabbat (Friday evening) April 28,1989 in Santiago, Chile, and I laughed with Jenny and Pamela, the first to arrive at my sublet apartment, as we wondered if any of their friends would actually show up! I had invited a handful of Jewish university women to a Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) celebration and while preparing cheese, apricot nectar and the bread as closely resembling challah as I could find, I wondered if my sudden impulse to organize this meeting would prove worthwhile. There was no time to schedule a follow-up gathering; I was to leave for Bolivia in five days.

A knock on the door and the contagious smiles of three more late Latinas made the hour unimportant. There was talk about the work overload at the university, about the Camp Ramah newsletter overdue for publication and some gossip on current relationships. After a while 1 asked permission to explain why I had brought these women together.

As a Jewish woman from the Northeast of the United States, a place where feminism and Jewish community are far more visible than in Santiago, I wanted to share some of my experience with these new dear friends of mine. Their individual searches for information beyond the borders of their “preciosa” yet isolated land, and each woman’s striving for personal growth, provided fertile ground for this Rosh Chodesh meeting.

After four months in the country, including three weeks at Chile’s Camp Ramah (affiliated with the Jewish camps of the same name in this country), I was familiar with many of the constraints on my female friends. Having grown up under the harsh regime of General Augusto Pinochet, they, like their male counterparts, had been taught to keep ideas to themselves, to act and speak cautiously, to comply with the system. And the system was not only that of a political dictatorship, but of a Latin American society which has given these women a set of traditions and boundaries within which to safely operate. Finally, these young women were Jewish. Their community expected them to succeed academically, to marry as early as possible and to accept the traditions of the intimate Jewish community (15,000 to 20,000 in Chile, concentrated in Santiago).

I suggested to the women seated around the small table that because of these societal pressures, which they had individually shared with me in many conversations, it could be positive to meet as a group of women outside the activities of the male/female group of Jewish university cohorts. A friendly, enthusiastic bunch of men and women had been at my apartment only nine days previously for a Passover seder, organized mainly by Roberto, now a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. The university group, made up of past and present Ramah counselors and their friends, is the pride and joy of their synagogue, La Communidad Sepharadi de Santiago. These young people bring life to their Jewish heritage, leading services once a month, and meeting for Onegei Shabbat (Sabbath parties) occasionally.

Yet I had noticed the constant flirting, the youthful self-consciousness of the men and women, all hoping to find a partner in a very small community. “So I thought maybe you would enjoy meeting as women ….” I watched their faces. How would they react? Would my Gringa ideas be resented? Would they see me as I felt some of their parents did, as a ‘radical feminist?’

I continued, in my far from perfect Spanish, to tell them stories of one Jewish women’s group in which I had participated for a year, the Rosh Chodesh group of Montpelier, Vermont. Through the Beth Jacob Synagogue, women meet on the Sunday closest to the new moon to speak about their experiences of the previous month and to engage in some activity relating to Jewish women.

So with that as our model for the night, I began reflecting on my month in Santiago, how I felt as 1 prepared to leave Chile, a country with whose people and land I had fallen in love. And we proceeded around the circle, one by one. Only when my introduction was over did I realize the energy and excitement in their voices. I sat back to witness the spontaneous sharing of feelings and hopes among friends.

One woman spoke of her growing awareness of challenges confronting women, and the need to nurture women’s solidarity in the traditional confines of the Jewish community. Another spoke of the sweetness of this opportunity, to meet in the apartment of a young woman who was able to live economically independent of her parents. One woman spoke of her imminent aliyah (immigration to Israel), another of the burden of family problems over the past months. When they left into the quiet, damp night I felt optimistic and satisfied. The few who had attended had responded so eagerly. The seeds were planted, but would they sprout?

I received some news of the group during my travels in Bolivia and Ecuador, but only when one of the women present at that first meeting, Cecilia, came to visit the States in January 1990 did I get a full progress report. Cecilia told me that the group had met a few times. They had once gone away to the beach for an apparently unforgettable Shabbat of sun and sisterhood. Ceci estimated there were fifteen reliable participants, and others who still needed encouragement. The group had articulated its objectives: to reflect on the previous month, using and exploring Rosh Chodesh as a cycle natural to women, and to provide a supportive atmosphere and a place to learn more about Judaism.

Cecilia and I set to work, to take full advantage of her months here. We attended services at Conservative, egalitarian, and Reconstructionist synagogues, and Cecilia spent hours at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. We had time to speak to one Hadassah group in Teaneck, New Jersey, which gave the gift of Lilith Magazine to this as yet unnamed group of vibrant Jewish Santiaginas.

So to our friends in Santiago who can read these words in their own Lilith Magazine: Estamos pensando en ustedes. We are thinking of you and wish you success and strength.

Note: If you are interested in learning more about this group contact the author through Lilith. You are also encouraged to write letters to the group care of the author with your ideas, stories or dates of arrival to Chile for a visit.