BUENOS AIRES (May. 28)
Pablo Thaler is the son-in-law many Jewish families would love to have.
Considered a brilliant student by his teachers, Thaler is a guitar and soccer player who spends more time with his family than going clubbing — and, he says, he’s proud of his Jewish heritage.
In the fall, the 18-year-old Argentine will became a freshman at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, the beneficiary of an idea that had its birth at a baby-naming last year at Temple Beth Shalom in Cherry Hill, N.J.
The temple’s rabbi, Rabbi Steven Lindemann, had just returned from a short mission to Argentina with the local federation.
He had spent some time in one of ORT’s two high schools in Buenos Aires, which together have 5,000 students.
When Lindemann spoke to some 11th-graders in a chemistry lab, one teen mentioned that they would “all love to be students in the United States, but it’s only a dream. It’s not going to happen.”
For one student, it will.
Dickinson’s vice president of enrollment, Robert Massa, who also attended the baby-naming, was touched by the story — and felt that “it made enormous sense to recruit a student with enough potential and capability.”
More than two-thirds of Dickinson’s students study abroad, but only 2 percent of the student body at the small college in Carlisle, Pa. is international.
“Our strategic objective is to increase this percentage,” Massa says. “We are making a concerted effort to increase the number of international students.”
Massa also viewed the opportunity as a chance to benefit Jewish life on campus, which he calls “extremely active and very vibrant.”
Massa spoke to colleagues at Dickinson and then contacted Lindemann, who put him in touch with the principal of the ORT School in Buenos Aires, Alicia Toker.
Massa then was put in touch with Thaler.
“I thought Thaler would be the right candidate for such an experience. He has the maturity to be able to live abroad,” says Toker, rector of the ORT Technical School, from which Thaler recently graduated.
A Dickinson history professor who happened to be in Buenos Aires at the time interviewed Thaler.
“He came back with a glowing report,” Massa says. “He was very enthusiastic about our pursuing a relationship with him.”
Thaler accepted a four-year academic scholarship to Dickinson, which includes tuition, room and board — a value of $36,000 per year.
The money was supposed to simply come out of the college’s general scholarship fund but a number of alumni and friends of the college were extremely moved by the story and contributed funds, Massa says.
So far the college has raised around $21,000.
“The important question,” Lindemann says, is whether or not the scholarship program “can be replicated.”
Massa has expressed interest in possibly expanding the program. He currently is planning a trip to Buenos Aires tentatively scheduled for July. That would allow him to meet Thaler, his family and Toker.
Thaler is the youngest of three children of David and Maria Laura Thaler, an electronic engineer and a kindergarten teacher
In the early 1980s, David Thaler owned a medical equipment company with about 30 employees, Pablo Thaler says. But the business has shrunk during Argentina’s recent economic struggles.
“We had to adjust ourselves to a new reality. Our family’s economy suffered many cutbacks. But we still have private health insurance,” says Thaler, mentioning an important quality-of-life issue in Argentina.
Thaler is excited about enrolling at Dickinson, where he plans to study international affairs. But he is cherishing the time he has at home with his friends and family.
“Mom and I have decided to share Wednesday afternoons until I leave. We go to museums, walk, or just stay home having tea together,” Thaler says..
Meanwhile, Thaler is still working as a drawing teacher for kids at the Beit Hillel Jewish Center.
“I go to the temple mainly for festivities. But I have a strong feeling of belonging,” says Thaler, who spoke with JTA in a room at his school.
Thaler also has heard from the Jewish community in his home-to-be.
Their e-mail messages “are incredibly comforting for me and for my parents,” Thaler says.
His family “make me feel I might be too far from Caballito,” the neighborhood in Buenos Aires where his family lives, he says. “But I won’t be alone.”