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The Jews of Argentina: Not Strangers in the Land

The secular/Zionist orientation of Argentine Jewry–which dates back to the period of Jewish immigration in the 1880’s — is being challenged in recent years by the rise of a Conservative movement which is attracting many young people and couples.

The movement was spearheaded by the establishment of the Seminario Rabinico Latin-americano by Rabbi Marshall Meyer in 1962. At the time the Seminario was founded, Argentine Jewry was a “secular community with poor Orthodox leadership and rabbis who didn’t know how to reach the youth,” its 30-year-old rector, Daniel Fainstein, told a visiting delegation of North American journalists and communal leaders.

The Seminario, which marked its 25th anniversary this August, has ordained 30 Conservative rabbis to date, most of them working in Argentina. They were invited to take over pulpits of old synagogues founded by immigrants many of which were “vaguely, though not ideologically or theologically, traditional,” said Fainstein. “They sought to have young people and a rabbi who can confront the issues that concern them.”

Rabbi Efraim Rosenzweig of Cordoba’s Temple Bet El, is a Conservative rabbi, as is the official rabbi of Mendoza. In Buenos Aires, in addition to the Conservative Comunidad Bet El, there are 20 minyans (prayer groups) which meet in Jewish schools, started by parents of the students.

The Seminario is now located in a modern building in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires where 20,000 Jews, many upwardly mobile, live. It trains rabbis, community directors to work with them, and madrichim (counselors) for youth groups; runs an institute for adult education, an afternoon high school with 198 pupils, and a choir open to all; and maintains a library of over 27,000 volumes, and a burgeoning publications program.

GROWTH OF CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM

Comunidad Bet El also in the Belgrano district with Rabbi Baruj Plavnick at the pulpit, attracts about 1,500 congregants on the average Friday evening. There is an air of conviviality at the services: people dress informally and sit on folding chairs. The spirit is lively and people sing along with congregants (including women) who lead some of the prayers, accompanied by an organ.

Conservative rabbis in Argentina, said Fainstein, tend to be “left-wing Conservative” and believe in the equality of women. One of the students at the Seminario, a grandmother named Margit Baumatz who serves as rabbi for the German congregation Lamrot Hakol (“in spite of everything”), is planning to be the first woman ordained there.

The situation in the various synagogues where Conservative rabbis serve, however, is still in the process of transition. In Cordoba, although Rosenzweig thinks women should be allowed to have an aliya, he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “this is not the congregation’s minhag (custom) and one cannot always go against the congregation.” Five or six years ago, he added, “it was a big revolution to get mixed seating.”

What is the reason for the growth of the Conservative movement in a community which has always been secular? Some Argentine leaders attribute it to a “spiritual awakening.” Others advance a socio-economic interpretation: Conservative Jews, being upper middle class, seek a different ideology from Zionism, which was proletarian and lower class petit bourgeois in tone. Fainstein discounts the latter reason, stating that there are Conservative communities “in all places, far from being wealthy.”

Another theory is that the religious interest on the part of Argentine Jews started during the eight-year reign of the junta, when few other vehicles of expression were regarded as safe. A similar explanation is proferred in relation to the increasing popularity of the community centers, which became “a family haven” at that time.

Perhaps the explanation closest to the mark is that Argentine Jews are increasingly seeking ways to make a synthesis between being Jews and being Argentineans. The Conservative movement and the community centers are each trying to work out such a synthesis — and both feel strongly that the communal structures should reflect the actual religious and political pluralism that exists among Jews.

THE ROLE OF THE AMIA

One of the objects of their critique in this regard is the AMIA (Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina), also called the Kehila de Buenos Aires. The AMIA funds the Jewish schools in the capital city and the provinces, holds cultural activities such as lectures, exhibits and concerts, and administers welfare and the cemeteries.

Outgoing AMIA president Luis Perlmutter told the North American delegation that out of the annual budget of $10 million, 50 percent goes to education and 25 percent to social welfare. The AMIA, he said, has overcome its budget crisis of several years ago; it is generally acknowledged that good financial management played a key role here.

Hebraica officials and others criticize the AMIA for not including the Sephardim, who constitute about 30 percent of Buenos Aires Jewry. The Sephardim are mainly descendants of immigrants from Syria, Morocco, Algeria and Turkey. They run their own synagogues (30) and schools (three). The exclusion of the Sephardim from the AMIA, however, derives mainly from their having had different models of communal organization at the time of their immigration.

Another criticism of the AMIA is that its official rabbi is Orthodox, and it is he who officiates at all ceremonial functions. More importantly, there are no AMIA activities on the Sabbath, and no non-Orthodox conversions are accepted by its rabbinate.

But even Jews critical of the AMIA admit that many in that body favor religious pluralism, but are fearful that the Orthodox rabbis would never accept it and the Kehila would then be divided. This the AMIA is determined to avert.

Community-wide elections to the AMIA are held every three years; six parties put up candidates and officials are selected by a system of proportional representation. At the time of the visit of the North American delegation, posters from the different parties running in the spring elections were still on the walls of buildings in the old Jewish Once (pronounced On-say) neighborhood, where the AMIA building is located.

Hebraica president Mario Trumper criticized the fact that the AMIA is run along the lines of old Jewish political parties, “some of which have disappeared in Israel but are still alive and well in Argentina,” and dominated by the Avoda (similar to the Israeli Labor) Party.

In the recent elections, Avoda garnered 40 percent of the vote. A party named Breira, representing all the community centers and clubs and calling for “religious pluralism and a richer Jewish life,” ran for the second time. It garnered 20 percent of the votes.

However, only about 9,000 Jews voted in the recent elections (down from 12,600 in 1966), out of an estimated Jewish population in Buenos Aires of 230,000. Trumper told the delegation that “the majority of Jews in Buenos Aires don’t know and don’t care about these kind of discussions. The youth don’t participate in the elections. . . . “Others added that the Kehila’s workers are not allowed by Argentine law to vote in such elections.

Trumper called for opening up the list of people who can vote, giving “other kinds of services that can integrate the poor and the rich, and “integrate rather than divide” Ashkenazim and Sephardim. He concluded: “A community which does not accept religious pluralism works against history.”

(Next Week: Part Four)

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