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Keeping Teens off the Streets, Argentine School Trains Young Jews

It was getting late on a recent Wednesday night, but a group of Jewish teenagers stayed huddled in a fifth-floor office here practicing their Hebrew in between bites of cookies.

Next door, another group danced to thumping Israeli music, moving around a room decorated with maps of Israel and Hebrew stickers.

There were no notebooks to be seen, and the insouciant jeans-clad teenagers practicing Hebrew sat with their legs draped over chairs, blowing bubble-gum balloons, but this actually was a training session for new teachers.

“Let’s focus on the Rosh Hashanah concepts of initiation and renewal,” called out Jessica Rozenbaum, head of the Madrijim School — pronounced “madrichim,” the Hebrew word for counselors — at the Hebraica Jewish Center.

Some 100 teenagers — 15- and 16-year old males and females — are enrolled in an informal two-year educational program at the school to learn how to become recreational Jewish teachers.

The teens will become the educators for some 1,400 children aged 18 months to 16 years who attend weekly activities at Hebraica’s two locations in downtown Buenos Aires and in the northern suburb of Pilar.

“Unlike several of my Madrijim School classmates, I do not attend a Jewish school,” said Daniel, 16. “To me this Jewish education is much needed. I transmit the meaning of Judaism to my non-Jewish friends.”

For many of the students, the Madrijim School has become a place to put their youthful energy to good use rather than hanging out at night on the street drinking beer or lounging at home watching TV, says Patricio Samet, director of Hebraica’s youth department.

The school’s demanding attendance mandate — Wednesday evenings and all day Saturday — requires teenagers to optimize their schedule. Some skip outings Friday nights to make time for the program.

Given Buenos Aires’ skyrocketing crime rates, parents are glad their children are spending time in a safe, Jewish place rather than on the dangerous streets.

“On Wednesdays I finish school at 4 p.m., and until 7 p.m. — when the Madrijim School class starts — I study at the Hebraica library or coffee shop,” said Carla, 16. “We end late at night — at 9:30 p.m. — but we commute on the subway in a big group.

“My parents don’t love the fact that I commute at night in Buenos Aires, but they got used to it. And I can’t stay at home forever even though our country has become more and more dangerous.”

Carlos Kleiner, Hebraica’s general secretary, says Madrijim is much more than an afterschool program.

“Hebraica is a hotbed for Jewish leadership,” Kleiner told JTA. “We educate young professionals that end up directing Jewish institutions throughout the country and worldwide.”

The idea, Samet said, is to develop creative ways to transmit Jewish culture. Samet says the school tries to do so in a “healthy and amusing way,” and graduates often get their first job working in a Jewish setting.

Hebraica, an 80-year-old Jewish social, cultural and athletic institution, also runs interfaith arts projects, city cultural programs and inter-institutional Jewish programs. The organization has 12,000 members.

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