For Spanish-speaking Jews, ongoing pandemic restrictions recently served as the impetus for a pan-Spanish gathering unprecedented in scope when more than 1,000 students from 70 communities in Argentina, Colombia, Spain, Israel, the United States, Panama, Mexico, Chile, Paraguay and 10 other countries connected to a virtual world youth meeting.

Spanish is one of the most frequently spoken first languages in Jewish communities around the world with an estimated 181,000 Spanish-speaking Jews in Argentina alone. For more than three decades, Beit Chabad Palermo–El Lazo Youth Center has worked with young Jews in Buenos Aires, and by their estimate, some 55,000 Argentine Jews have taken part in their programming to date. The highlight of the year has long been their annual Pegisha (“Encounter”), a weekend of Jewish exploration and connection coordinated by El Lazo. In 2019, some 250 Jews in their 20s and 30s, including some who flew in from overseas, gathered at a beachside hotel in Carilo, Buenos Aires.

But due to coronavirus restrictions this year, organizers realized that they needed to retool the experience. “When we had to close the doors due to the quarantine, we knew we had to reinvent the Pegisha so that instead of limiting our reach, we could expand even more,” Rabbi Shlomo Levy, director of El Lazo Youth Center, told

Ortal Pinto, a psychology major and teacher from Panama, heard about the Pegisha from Rabbi Shlomo Poliwoda, who runs youth programming for Chabad in Panama.

“I heard about the event, and it seemed like something pretty cool and different,” she said. “So with other members of Chabad’s KSpace, I decided to take part!”

‘Incredible Thirst Among Youth for Judaism’

Ultimately, over the course of four days, participants took part in debates, games and solidarity challenges, foraging a “virtual connection” to unify the young Spanish-speaking Jewish community around the world.

Among the speakers was Omer Yankelevich, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs, and Monica Davidovich, a Holocaust survivor, who shared her life story with the participants.

Omer Yankelevich, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs who herself is Torah observant, spoke at the event.
Omer Yankelevich, the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs who herself is Torah observant, spoke at the event.

For Shabbat, organizers sent packages with wine, challah, a booklet with information and texts, candles and cookies for participants to continue the Shabbat experience offline.

"We’ve been overwhelmed by the response,” said Rabbi Zalmy Levy, one of the event’s coordinators. “There’s just this incredible thirst among the youth for more Judaism, spiritual growth and strength to make a real change not just online, but in their respective communities."

As part of the Pegisha’s focus to bridge the online and actual worlds, participants needed to perform “solidarity challenges”—acts of social good for their communities—such as donating canned foods, used clothes, checking in with the elderly or otherwise isolated on the phone, and then sharing their good deeds with other Pegisha members on Instagram.

"I was inspired to donate food items and volunteer at two foundations I’m passionate about,” said Pinto of the solidarity challenges. “The Pegisha was truly an amazing experience. I not only got to meet young Spanish-speaking Jews from around the world, but also learn something truly profound about my heritage. I hope that next year we can all gather face to face."