Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reflections on Argentina and its Jews

Part I

One day before the beginning of the blizzards of 2010, we returned from three weeks in Argentina, our first encounter with South America; in fact, we had never been anywhere south of the U.S. border.

Jews have been in Argentina in significant numbers at least since the 1850s. Prior to that, some Sephardic Jews – including Conversos (secret Jews) – had come from Spain. The great influx of European Jews began around 1860, when huge numbers made their way from the Pale of Settlement to various ports around the world. Today, the estimates of Jews in all of Argentina range from 150,000- 200,000, or even as high as 250,000, but most agree that all but about 20,000 live in Buenos Aires. There is no religious census in Argentina as there is in some European countries.

The oldest congregation in the country, La Congregación Israelita de la República Argentina, is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism [WUPJ] ( We attended Services there on two Shabbat evenings. Centrally located, its grand building is featured in every guidebook and includes a small but interesting museum recounting the history of the Jews in Argentina, including more than 800 early settlers who became gauchos (cowboys) and established ranches throughout the countryside where many still farm the fertile land and raise . . . Argentine beef!

The congregation has two rabbis, a cantor, and a very full program of activities, from a large religious school to social action initiatives to holiday celebrations. The Shabbat prayerbook of La Congregación Israelita carries the logo of the WUPJ, and its Shabbat Service includes Debbie Friedman’s arrangement of “Mi Shebeirach,” as well as many other liturgical settings familiar to U.S. synagogue attendees.

In the late 1950s, the congregation invited Conservative Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer from the U.S. to serve the congregation. In addition to revitalizing his own congregation and spinning off others in suburban Buenos Aires, he established a seminary that prepares community leaders – rabbis, cantors, educators – for all of Central and South America. A social justice activist who worked against the “Dirty War” and tried to save many of the Disappeared, Meyer eventually returned to the U.S. and became the guiding spirit and spiritual leader of B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of New York, today’s thriving “BJ.”

Two other sites that many Jewish travelers to Buenos Aires typically visit are AMIA, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina; and the former site of the Israeli Embassy, now a memorial park.

AMIA is a multi-purpose center for the Jewish community. In July 1994, a truck loaded with explosives drove into the building. The building was destroyed, 85 people died, and more 300 were injured. A new building erected on the same site is highly secure, with the familiar Jersey barricades outside, guards, double walls and metal detectors. Tourists must be cleared in advance of a visit, usually with a group, to view the exhibits and artwork in the building. On the street, 85 trees planted on several blocks through the neighborhood of Once, the equivalent of New York’s Lower East Side in its hey-day, are reminders of each of the dead.

No one ever has been convicted of the bombing of AMIA, nor has anyone been held responsible for the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, when 29 people died and more than 240 were wounded, most of them children in a nearby Catholic school.

While they particularly affected the Jewish community, these two incidents occupy a significant place in recent Argentine history. Members of the Jewish community with whom we spoke do not regard them as examples of anti-Semitism directly targeting them but rather as manifestations of larger international issues being played out in a country where – for many complicated political and historical reasons – justice may never be fully served.

While there have been no convictions, these cases are not closed but very much alive. Many see the two bombings as reprises of the Dirty War, which continues to echo throughout the society. While we were in Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner implied that the adopted children of the owners of Argentina’s largest media group, critics of Kirchner and her husband (the previous president of Argentina), may have been stolen from their families. Jews were disproportionately represented among the victims of the Dirty War, an issue that Nathan Englander dealt with in The Ministry of Special Cases.

At the Museo de la Shoá, many aspects of Argentina’s complicated history vis à vis its Jewish citizens are highlighted. Jews played an important role in helping the young country develop its great wealth, and they were well-respected and participated fully. While Peron had Nazi sympathies and at the least allowed – if not encouraged – Nazis to settle in Argentina, he also established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949. Subsequent presidents – following the Dirty War – had good relations with the Jewish community. President Saul Menem ordered the release of files that revealed Argentina’s role in harboring Nazis, a move that some see as the trigger for the bombings in 1992 and 1994.

Part II

Shortly before we traveled to Argentina, we were delighted to discover that Madi, whom we’ve known for many years, lives in Buenos Aires, and owns BA Cultural Concierge ( Among other treats, Madi arranged for us to spend a half day with Elvira, an Argentinean Jew whose family originally came from Syria. Elvira offers Jewish tours with a socially responsible focus and helps visitors find volunteer community service opportunities and internships (

Elvira, whose parents operate a children’s clothing store in Once, took us to the synagogue her grandparents had founded and to kosher bakeries, and she pointed out the only kosher McDonald’s outside Israel. Most importantly, she arranged for us to meet with Betina Rosental, who works with the Refuot Community Medicine Bank of the Fundación Tzedaká ( Fundación Tzedaká was founded in 1991 to serve the neediest members of the Jewish community.

Elvira explained that from the earliest days of the Jewish community in Argentina, in the 1880s, until the 1990s, when Argentina’s economy began to collapse, Argentine Jews had sent millions of dollars overseas to communities in Palestine, Israel, and elsewhere. After nearly a century, became the recipients of aid from other countries, as about 50,000 people slipped out of the middle class and below the poverty line.

The Medicine Bank, one of the Fundación’s many initiatives, provides prescription and over-the-counter medications to these Jews who live below the poverty line. While medical care in Argentina is provided by the state, medications are not. Pharmaceutical companies and doctors contribute medications, and the Bank collects and purchases others; through a network of professional social workers, pharmacists, and dozens of volunteers, prescriptions are filled and delivered throughout the country both for chronic conditions and emergency care. The model program is being copied by the local Catholic community on a more limited basis; it has been copied by the Jewish community in Uruguay, and shortly after our visit, a major international foundation was arriving to study the initiative with the possibility of replicating it even more widely.

The Fundación is housed in one of many Jewish community centers throughout Buenos Aires. Elvira explained that these are the real social centers for the Jewish communities, with fitness centers; lectures and concerts like the one we had attended at AMIA; and dances, sports teams, camping programs and Zionist activities for children and young adults.

Synagogues in Buenos Aires do not have dues-paying members. Families pay school fees to the private Jewish day schools that are affiliated with the synagogues. Synagogue budgets depend on charges for b’nai mitzvot and weddings, plus High Holy Day “appeals.” Funerals are handled through AMIA.

Our tour with Elvira ended at the Catedral Metropolitana de Buenos Aires, the main Catholic church directly across from the Plaza de Mayo, where some relatives of the Disappeared still walk every Thursday. (The original mothers’ group has been replaced by people with other agendas, which caused a schism among the founders; the Thursday we were there, signs focused on the dangers of drugs.)

The cathedral contains the first memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust erected in a Catholic church, according to its designers, and also marks the bombings of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires and AMIA. Located on the wall in the side chapel of the Virgin of Lujan, it is next to the tomb of the late cardinal of Argentina, Antonio Quarracino. Cardinal Quarracino commissioned and arranged for the mural but died before its dedication. The mural contains torn and partially burned pages of Jewish books rescued from concentration camps, ghettoes, the Embassy of Israel, and AMIA. We found it very moving. Elvira explained that she ends her Jewish tours there because she wants visitors to return home with the understanding that the Jews of Argentina have lived side-by-side with non-Jews in peace and safety for more than 100 years.