Argentine Hillel opening is ‘seed of hope’

BUENOS AIRES, March 12 (JTA) — A “seed of hope” for a Jewish community in crisis. That’s how the executive director of Argentina’s first Hillel characterized the center’s opening this week. Indeed, Tuesday’s festive opening was one big Jewish party, replete with music, laughter, circle dances, hugs and cries of “mazel tov.” Hundreds of Jews from the United States, Israel, Argentina and other Latin American countries gathered for the celebration. Showing their support for the financially beleaguered Jewish community with their attendance were many prominent Jewish philanthropic and communal leaders, including mega-philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt, all of whom serve on the International Board of Governors of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. With the economic crisis having pushed nearly one-third of Argentina’s Jewish community below the poverty level, the new Hillel offered a glimmer of a better future. While most Argentine Jewish institutions are shrinking or merging — or focusing on humanitarian relief — the opening of the Hillel represents a “hinge” for the Jewish community, said Gabriel Trajtenberg, the center’s 37-year-old executive director. The sentiment was echoed by many of the invited guests. “People who know me generally accuse me of being pessimistic. And more often than not, they are right,” Steinhardt told JTA, seated at the edge of the stage used for the ceremony. “But then, sometimes, there is a magical experience, a moment that allows one to dream about a stronger and brighter Jewish future. This night was one of those moments.” For her part, Schusterman described the event as “uplifting for the whole community.” She said it was particularly “emotional and special to see these young people and feel the impact they are going to have in the community.” Others attending the event included Stephen Hoffman, president of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of the North American federation system; Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Claims Conference; Israel’s ambassador to Argentina, Benjamin Oron; and Michael Schneider, former president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Local Jewish leaders were also very much in evidence, including the president of the AMIA Jewish community center, Abraham Kaul; the president of DAIA, the political umbrella organization for Argentina’s Jewish community, Jose Hercman; and the Jewish Agency for Israel’s top local official, Arieh Avir. There were also hundreds of students who had already joined Hillel Argentina, whose target audience is some 9,000 Jewish students enrolled in the two public and 15 private universities in Buenos Aires. Last August, Hillel opened temporary quarters in Argentina. According to Trajtenberg, 1,600 young Jews have already enrolled in Hillel activities, and 1,000 are participating in a weekly regular activity. Bronfman alluded to the first Hillel to open in Latin America — in Montevideo, Uruguay — and said that the new Hillel in Buenos Aires proves that the organization “will continue growing” throughout the region. Indeed, Hillel centers are expected to open in Rio de Janeiro, San Paulo and Santiago de Chile. Along with providing classes in a variety of subjects ranging from languages to art, Hillel also offers a center — Tzedek Hillel, with more than 300 volunteers — that reaches out to help the financially strapped community — both Jews and non-Jews. For Nancy Rovner, 24, a physiotherapy student from the northern Argentine city of Tucuman, the new Hillel was just what she needed. “I am alone here. I need the Jewish connection,” she told JTA. “To be honest, I like the sports activities offered by Hillel,” said Guido Feldman, an industrial engineering student who is also 24. But he had another reason for joining Hillel. “I also want to find a Jewish girlfriend.”

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