In Ironic Twist of History, Spain Now Attracting Argentine Jews

It was standing room only in the B’nai Brith office that Madrid’s tiny, rabbi-less Conservative synagogue uses for its Kabbalat Shabbat services.

After concluding prayers on a recent Friday night, Bet El’s congregation remained seated to talk about reports that tens of thousands of Argentine Jews — most of them members of the Conservative movement — wanted to emigrate to Spain.

A veteran member of the eight-year-old congregation called for people to volunteer as host families.

Others proposed helping arrange jobs and residence permits and renting apartments that immigrants could stay in while getting their papers in order.

“If we don’t act now, we will be missing a huge opportunity,” said Mario Stofenmacher, Bet El’s prayer leader, himself Argentine-born.

It is estimated that as many as 40,000 of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews will leave Argentina as a result of the economic crisis that has decimated the savings of middle-class families. Many have been forced to take their meals in soup kitchens sponsored by Argentine Jewish communities.

Significant numbers of Argentine Jews are moving to Israel and America. But — in an ironic twist of history — cultural similarities, a common language and economic prosperity are drawing many others to Spain.

Spain’s medieval Jewish Golden Age came to an abrupt halt with the 1492 expulsion decree by Isabel and Ferdinand, whose inquisition turned the Iberian peninsula into a bastion of anti-Semitism and religious intolerance for centuries to come.

Only after the legalization of non-Catholic faiths in the 19th century did Jews begin to trickle back to Spain. Today’s community numbers around 14,000, mostly Moroccan Jews who immigrated in the 1950s, along with expatriates from the Americas and some Spaniards rediscovering their Jewish roots.

As some three-quarters of Argentine Jewry is said to belong to the Conservative movement, the influx would be a boon for Bet El, which is dwarfed by the Sephardic Orthodox synagogue a few blocks away on Balmes street.

In the last year, Bet El has gone from struggling to raise a minyan for its weekly services to filling the rows of office chairs in the small room of a gray high-rise building in Madrid.

Edgardo Einhorn is one of the new faces. The 32-year-old political scientist moved to Spain a year ago western Argentina because his girlfriend had relatives here.

Plus, he said, “I tried living in Israel for a year but it wasn’t for me.”

Like most Argentine Jews, Einhorn knows of at least a dozen Jews back home planning to move to Spain. After enduring years of dictatorship and waves of hyperinflation, Argentine Jews have seen their savings wiped out by the steep devaluation of the peso and tight restrictions on bank withdrawals.

“The latest measures are really affecting the middle class, and the Jews in Argentina are mostly middle class,” Einhorn said. “The upper class already got their money out.”

Stofenmacher, who is also Bet El’s director, said the crisis was threatening “40 years of efforts” in Argentina by American Conservative Rabbi Marshall Meyer.

Stofenmacher should know. He studied with Meyer, who created the Argentine Masorti movement almost single-handedly in the 1950s and 1960s, setting up a rabbinical school and teacher training center and guiding an expansion of synagogues from one to 20 in the Buenos Aires area alone.

Einhorn said the pattern of Argentine Jewish emigration follows the money.

“The people with money go to Spain or the United States. Those with no money go to Israel,” where the government has made generous financial and social benefits available to new Argentine arrivals.

Earlier in the week, the president and executive vice president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues visited Madrid to see how the council could help future immigrants.

Alan Silverstein and Rabbi Joseph Wernik toured the Madrid Jewish community’s day school in a northern suburb and met with Stofenmacher and the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue.

They also had dinner with Bet El members and a young Argentine couple trying to decide whether to settle in Madrid or Miami.

Silverstein said the council is considering sending a young delegate to Madrid as part of — the council’s youth corps — to work with teenagers and young adults. It also may arrange a trip to Madrid for a group of young American Jews.

Wernik said that when he travels to Buenos Aires in March to speak to rabbis about help for the crisis-stricken community and about the prospects of aliyah, he also will mention the option of moving to Spain.

“I’m not going there looking for people to move to Madrid,” Wernik said. “My first concern is that if they had a choice, they would go to Israel. I believe Israel is the most secure place for Jews to live. But not all Jews are going to make aliyah,” he continued. “So I want them to know what the options are.”

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