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Although they do share a common culture and religion, the Jews of North and South America have very distinctive lifestyles. The South American Jewish communities began as Conversos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) who accompanied early Spanish and Portuguese explorers. However, most of the Jewish immigrants to the Americas came in the late 1800's from Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the Middle East. While most of them speak either English or Spanish, other distinctive Jewish dialects are also still used. Yiddish, a German dialect with Hebrew elements, is the lingua franca of those with a European heritage, while Ladino, a blend of Spanish and Hebrew, is often used by those of Spanish descent. Hebrew is the religious language of prayer for the more Orthodox Jews.
What are their lives like?
In North America, most Jews live in urban areas on the east or west coasts. New York City has the largest concentrated Jewish population in North America, with over a half million Hassidic Jews alone. In South America, they also live in cities, but keep themselves as a distinct religious and ethnic minority.
While maintaining a Jewish identity, the majority of North American Jews conform to the mainstream American culture. "Jewishness" is often defined in more secular terms such as the use of Yiddish words and family traditions, rather than in religious aspects, such as the following of Jewish laws regarding dietary restrictions.
Not all Jews are religious. Some understand their Jewishness only as a social and cultural identity. Understanding what it means to be a Jew begins in childhood. It takes place in the home through storytelling and by taking part in Jewish rituals and festivals such as Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Passover. Socialization also takes place through participation in Hebrew school or synagogue youth groups.
At the age of 13, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for a boy (or Bat Mitzvah for a girl) is an important rite of passage, which marks him or her as an adult member of the community. While these ceremonies were more spiritually focused in the past, they have become equally important as social events.
Marriage and family relationships among Jews are much the same as other Americans. While Jewish families have fewer children, they are child-oriented, indulgent, and permissive. Although wives generally take on their husbands' surnames, Jewish identity is traced through the mothers. That is, if one's mother is a Jew, then he is, according to Jewish law, Jewish. He or she is entitled to all the rights and privileges that status brings, including the right to immigrate to Israel and settle there as a citizen.
The Jews of North and South America work in most trades and professions. They are very well represented in small and middle-sized businesses, the communication and entertainment industries, medicine, law, and accounting. In South America, Jewish executives have been extremely successful. However, the more successful the Jewish executive in South America becomes, the greater tendency he may have to be assimilated into the Christian European society.
What are their beliefs?
For religious Jews, God is the Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe, and the ultimate Judge of human affairs. Beyond this, the religious beliefs of the Jewish communities vary greatly. Orthodox Jews generally follow the traditional religious beliefs and practices found in the Jewish literature that interprets Scripture regarding ethical, religious, civil and criminal matters. Conservative Judaism is less traditional than Orthodox and combines different ethical, philosophical, and spiritual schools of thought. Reform Judaism is the most liberal form and interprets Jewish beliefs and practices in light of contemporary life and thought. Reform Jews do not believe that the Jewish Law is divinely revealed. They are not restricted to kosher (traditional, approved) foods, nor do they wear the skull cap (yarmulke) when praying or use Hebrew in prayer. All religious Jews believe in the coming of a Messianic Age, but only the Orthodox Jew looks for a personal Messiah.
What are their needs?
The Jews have a wonderful understanding of their connection with the Abrahamic covenant. However, they also have a history of rejecting Jesus Christ as Messiah, the one who has fulfilled that covenant. Pray that as the Gospel is shared, it will not be viewed as anti-Semitic, but rather as the fulfillment of what God promised humanity through Abraham centuries ago.
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