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The Jews of Argentina: Not Strangers in the Land

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“The Mexicans came from the Aztecs, the Peruvians came from the Incas — and the Argentineans came from the boats.” This popular saying among Argentineans summarizes the reality of the immigrant ancestry of the vast number of the current population of 28 million, of which one percent are Jews.

Of the estimated 250,000 Jews in Argentina — “we have no statistics,” is a phrase often heard in the country — about 230,000 are concentrated in the capital city of Buenos Aires, home to about one-third of Argentina’s citizens.

The second largest Jewish communities, Cordoba and Rosario, each has 10,000 Jews, followed by Tucuman, with 4,000; Mendoza with 2,000; and Mar del Plata and Salta, with 1,000 each. The rest are scattered, many of them in the towns near where the Jewish agricultural colonies established by Baron de Hirsch in the 1880’s flourished until the mid-1920’s.

“The history of the community is secular and leftist,” said Joshua Flidel, director of ORT in Latin America, at a meeting with a delegation of North American journalists and communal leaders who recently visited the country.

Jewish immigrants were active in the Socialist, Anarchist and liberal movements of the early part of the 20th century. The grandparents of WIZO president Amalia Polack who settled in Rosario were among the founders of both the Socialist and the Radical Party. Moses Levinson was an important philosopher and leader in the old Radical Civic Union party in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Many immigrants were fervent Zionists who saw the country “as only a stepping stone” to Palestine, Polack told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Jews who came here chose Zionism in place of religion,” added Alberto Senderey, executive director of the Hebraica Community Center. “Part of that mythology is to make aliya.”

RELATIONSHIP WITH ISRAEL

Argentine Jewry’s relationship with Israel is primarily cultural, philanthropic and sentimental. In Cordoba, for example, the Jewish community took great pride in the fact that the city dedicated an “Israel Plaza” with a large menorah in the middle of it in May. Aliya runs about 1,000 a year, according to Israeli Ambassador Efraim Tari.

Activities in support of Israel are the main agenda of B’nai B’rith, with 800 members, 80 percent of them in Buenos Aires, and WIZO Founded in Argentina in 1926, WIZO has about 20,000 members, many of them in the smaller cities — “we have some chapters with three people,” Polack told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Though primarily involved with its 12 projects in Israel, WIZO also participates in philanthropic endeavors to help poor Argentineans.

Possibly the most quintessentially Argentine Jewish institution is the Hebraica Community Center. Located in a 14-story building in the middle of town a short walk from the charming Claridge Hotel where members of the North American delegation stayed, the Hebraica is open and jumping with activities for 3,000 people from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. The Hebraica, said Senderey, was founded by free-thinkers. Begun 60 years ago, its by-laws forbad the introduction of polities (by which they meant Zionism) and religion. The politics clause was repealed; the religion clause was not.

“The thrust is secular and pluralistic,” said Hebraica president Mario Trumper. Every Jewish holiday is celebrated, and the center is open for activities on the Sabbath. Senderey sees the Hebraica as a kind of cultural “supermarket” where people who “want to connect with Judaism come for a day-to-day experience which covers the whole span of life.”

The center gears itself to serve three prime constituencies: the 2-12-year-old group, teenagers, and adults. Its feast of cultural activities for its 20,000 dues-paying members (and anyone else who wishes to attend them at nominal cost) ranges from films, to theater, a choir, lectures and forums, and open university for adults taught by professors at Argentine universities, and a 40,000 volume library. The cultural exhibits in the lobby travel to municipalities, schools and other non-Jewish institutions.

Hebraica places most of its efforts on Jews in their teens “when most of Jewish identity is formed,” said Senderey. In addition to its Amos High School, it runs groups for teenagers led by college-age madrichim (counselors) trained by Hebraica, one for every 20 youths, and a supplementary two-afternoon-a-week school for children in non-Jewish primary schools. At 17, the young people spend two months in Israel’s Carmiel, where each pupil is “adopted” by a local family.

A MAJOR SUCCESS STORY

The Hebraica — which belongs to the Maccabi network of 60 community centers in Argentina — also has a country club of 350 acres about a half-hour drive from town. Some 500 families own chalets and condos there, with a dormitory for the 300 non-residents who stay over for entire weekends. Between 3-4,000 people, including groups of teenagers, travel there on Saturdays and Sundays to take part in a variety of cultural and sports activities.

“When the community club trend started in Argentina 12 years ago, we had to react or Jews would join the non-Jewish clubs,” said Senderey. The country club attracts couples with children who want their offspring to participate in Jewish activities and to meet other young Jews.

There is no synagogue or other religious activity at the club because the Hebraica respects the secular character of its members and does not want to confront the problem of what religious movement to give space to, said Trumper. It welcomes mixed couples who “understand that when they choose to come here they are making a decision on the education of their children.”

TAKING PUBLIC STANDS

Hebraica leaders believe that addressing all the problems of Argentina and of the world in the free atmosphere of their forums and taking strong stands in support of human rights and against anti-Semitism has a strong educational impact upon the youth.

They pointed to the fact that when Msgr. Antonio Plaza, the former Archbishop of La Plata, charged in March 1987 that “the government is full of Jews” (who) “made us squander three years discussing (human rights)…” the Hebraica took out a newspaper ad calling Plaza “one of the originators of Argentine fascism.” The next day, said Trumper, President Alfonsin used the same arguments in a speech. A second example was the action of the Hebraica in March 1986, when the Peronist CGT (General Confederation of Labor) union leader Saul Ubaldini responded at a televised rally to a shout of “Jews sons of whores” by saying that “there are black sheep in every group.” The Hebraica — as well as B’nai B’rith — Look out a strong ad in the newspapers.

Hebraica also took out a newspaper ad when there was a bomb in the center’s theater seven years ago during the reign of the junta.

“If you want to teach our children to be proud Jews, we have to (take such actions) with-out fear,” Senderey told the North American delegation.

(Tomorrow: Part Three)

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