To the Jewish public outside of South America it may sound strange to hear that the liveliest, the most active, the most important Jewish organizations in that part of the world are the Hebrew burial societies, or “chevra kadishas.”
In the Old World the sole function of a “chevra kadisha” (which literally means “holy society”) is to bury the dead according to the Jewish Orthodox religious tradition. In other words, the “chevra kadishas” there are purely religious institutions, having nothing to do with Jewish secular life.
In South America, however, it is different. Here the “chevra kadisha” has broad communal functions, which give it the character of a “kehillah,” although officially it is not known as such.
To give the reader an idea of a South American “chevra kadisha” and what it represents it will suffice for us to take as a model the Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha,” of which all the other South American “chevra kadishas” have been imitators. The Buenos Aires “chevra Kadisha” is an institution which helps dozens of other Jewish innstitutions. Special attention is devoted to supporting Hebrew schools, hospitals, orphanages and Jewish shelter homes. Besides these, it supports causes which bear a non-local and a broad Jewish national character. Thus it supports Palestine campaigns, relief funds for East-European Jews and Jewish colonization in Soviet Russia. It even helps to sell paintings by Jewish artists, as happened recently in the case of a picture by the deaf and dumb Jewish painter, Moritz Minkowski, which it bought for the purpose of donating it to the Argentine Museum of Art as a gift from the Jewish community. In short, the “chevra kadisha” exercises broad communal functions in Buenos Aires.
To carry on such wide activities great sums of money are naturally needed. How does the Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha” raise these large sums? In the answer to this problem really lies the solution of the puzzle of how the Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha” became the unofficial kehillah which, although it cannot force every Jew to pay a communal tax, is in a position to do it, and does do it.
It does it by capitalizing on the Jew’s sentiment for being buried upon his death in a Jewish cemetery. This sentiment, which is very strong, forces every Jew to be a member of the “chevra kadisha” and to pay it monthly dues. As a result, 16,000 Jewish families, representing about 60,000 people, now belong to the Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha.” The monthly dues of this great membership, together with the special payments for cemetery plots for the deceased, bring in large sums of money into the coffers of the “chevra kadisha,” which is thus enabled to engage in broad Jewish communal activities.
Besides this, the “chevra kadisha” enjoys great prestige among Buenos Aires Jews for the valiant fight which it conducted against a notorious band of Jewish white-slavers, refusing absolutely to take them into the society and to give them Jewish burial and forcing them to have their own cemetery.
The Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha” is also beloved of the Jewish population because of the democratic manner in which it is conducted. Its directors are elected by a secret ballot of all the members and they usually run the organization in a most satisfactory manner.
The Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha” is the oldest organization of that sort in South America. Nearly all the others have copied it in their activities, not only because the Buenos Aires “chevra kadisha” was the first to be established, but also because Buenos Aires contains by far the largest Jewish community in the South American continent.