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Behind the Headlines out of the Dark Tunnel

The community, in its relations with one another, and with the external world, does not speak with one voice. Often at odds with the over-all body, DAIA is the “conservative” movement including Temple Beth-El and the S.R.L. (the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano) founded in 1962 by Dr. Marshall Meyer, and the largest in Latin America.

The seminary, which occupies a large seven-story, modern and well-equipped building in the Belgrano section, has graduated 24 rabbis and hundreds of Jewish educators who serve in many countries. It also offers many courses open to the public in the evenings, and its library contains more than 25,000 volumes.

Its dedicated vice rector, Dr. Richard Freund, is form Long Island and appears intensely committed to every type of Jewish cause and to the upgrading of the community as a political and religious force. He is a very active member of the Jewish Committee on Human Rights, founded by Meyer and others in 1981 to investigate the disappearance and death of 2,000 Jews during the dark days from 1976 to 1983, and to keep an eye on any continuing violations of human rights.

The Committee feels that DAIA could have acted more forcefully than it did in protests to the military regime regarding the abduction of so many members of the Jewish community. But other influential Jews feel this group is somewhat too harsh in its assessment of DAIA’s role.

They feel there is no need for a special Jewish Committee, but rather for a commission representing all religious faiths designed to establish a dynamic momentum in protecting the rights of all people.

PIONEERING IN JEWISH SURVIVAL

Freund maintains that his seminary has pioneered in a Jewish revival in Argentina and has effectively diminished the trend toward secularization and assimilation, which until 1971 was as high as 50 to 60 percent.

The rate is decreasing, he said, and is now about 40 percent, largely because the new rabbis and seminarians have been so industrious, not only in outlying towns and regions, but in every country in Latin America.

Freund and his colleagues regularly perform mass conversions in many parts of Argentina to “normalize the situation” after several generations of intermarriage.

They are also combatting, with considerable success, what he termed “the trauma of circumcision” preached by ignorant doctors and psychiatrists in the recent past, and which resulted in widespread neglect of this fundamental and age-old Jewish practice. An influx of U.S.-trained doctors, the influence of the seminaries, and more enlightened rabbis, have helped redress this deplorable situation.

‘IT’S CHIC TO BE JEWISH’

“It’s chic to be Jewish” is part of Freund’s philosophy, and also the motto of the synagogue he attends, Temple Beth-El. It attracts every Friday evening over 1,000 young and youngish, well-dressed congregants who pack the sanctuary from wall to wall.

The atmosphere is charged and exuberant, as the cantor, the organist, and the entire audience as chorus, blend their talents in a lusty, uninhibited 75-minute musical service.

At times, the rhythms verge on rock and roll, and the melodic setting of the religious text is lifted unabashedly from Puccini and Massenet. Indeed it appeared to be one of the best shows in town, and always with an S.R.O. audience, according to a temple member.

A WELL-INFORMED COMMUNITY

The community is kept well-informed on what is happening in Jewish life by the weekly “Mundo Israelita” now in its 62nd year. It’s editor for the past 18 years, Gregorio Fainguersch, came to Buenos Aires from the Soviet Union in 1928.

He likened the current trial of the Argentine army generals to the Nuremberg trials, and considered the fact that it was being held at all as a supreme humanitarian act on the part of President Raul Alfonsin.

During the seven-year reign of terror, he had been forbidden to mention it in his weekly.

Fainguersch singled out for praise the two rabbis who had the courage to visit the prisons where Jews were held: Meyer, who had the protection of a U.S. passport, and Roberto Graetz, who later was forced to flee this country after receiving threats against his life. Graetz is now the esteemed rabbi of Temple ARI in Rio de Janeiro.

The present trial, exposing much of this infamous episode in the history of a people, is expected to conclude in September. A verdict is expected by the end of the year. The nine defendants on trial are six Generals and three Admirals and of the nine, three are former Presidents of Argentina.

A NERVE CENTER OF ACTIVITY

Hebraica, the Jewish community center in downtown Buenos Aires, is a vast, high-rise cultural complex, which opens its doors at 7 a.m. and finally callsita day at 1:30 in the morning, after receiving 3,000 Jews of all ages and inclinations. It provides for its 22,000 members a dazzling array of every type of facility and instruction, ranging from cinema, theater, sports, lectures, formal and informal educational courses for young and old alike, a vast library.

It has specialized programs for singles, for the divorced, for married adults, for senior citizens. For the youngsters, it has a Jewish elementary and a high school.

Hebraica has an enormous country club, 30 miles from Buenos Aires, on 330 acres which includes five restaurants, a youth hostel, a hostel for guests, 150 bungalows and 350 condominiums, in addition to a huge sports complex with its 18 hole golf course. Its members can live the good life in a congenial environment.

It all began in 1926 when Jewish writers and intellectuals resolved to fulfill a long-standing need to create a social and cultural club of their own, since they were not admitted into traditional Argentinian society. Today, Hebraica is an exhaustive and exhausting marvel.

Mendel Tennenbaum, the able and respected director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, and a university professor, sees the rather extreme differences between the very liberal “conservatives” and the “establishment” represented by DAIA as a stimulating and healthy portent of what lies ahead.

Whether there will be further polarization or an eventual entente, depends to a large extent on the success or failure of the democratic government of Alfonsin that succeeded the military dictatorship 18 months ago.

In Tennenboum’s view, Jews in this magnificent country know that, if the sweeping economic reforms announced on June 13 achieve their goals, and if charismatic President Alfonsin becomes the catalyst for closer ties with the Jewish citizenry and Israel, their future will be brighter and more assured. They deserve no less after emerging, with dignity and fortitude, from the long, dark tunnel of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s.

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