Will the first Orthodox leader of Argentina’s largest Jewish institution represent the entire community?
Some Argentine Jews were pondering this question after Guillermo Borger, the new president of the 114-year-old Argentine Israeli Mutual Association, or AMIA, was quoted in a newspaper article referring to “genuine Jews.”
At his inaugural speech on June 12, Borger, the son of Holocaust survivors, denied making these statements, published five days earlier in the Clarin, Buenos Aires’ leading daily.
“Some phrases incorrectly attributed to me were never expressed,” the 59-year-old businessman told a packed basement auditorium at AMIA headquarters near downtown Buenos Aires. “We will reinforce the AMIA role as a representative of all Jews, without exclusions.”
Borger said later, “We want an open AMIA.”
The Clarin is standing by its story, which quotes Borger as saying that “genuine Jews are those who lead a life based on everything that is dictated in the Torah, our sacred book.”
“It’s a paradox that people call themselves Jews if they don’t practice the religion,” Borger added, according to the newspaper.
Though still a minority in the community, the Orthodox have increased their stature in the Argentine Jewish community of some 250,000 by providing social assistance in the aftermath of the country’s economic collapse in 2001.
Some think that issues such as intermarriage, non-Orthodox Jewish schools and the Jewish burial of converts could become controversial in the community under the new leadership.
“We will do the most we can without missing what the Jewish law demands,” said Tomy Saieg, an Orthodox member of the new administration who was also part of the outgoing board.
“We are all genuine Jews,” he added, noting that his parents are not Orthodox.
As Borger made his inaugural address earlier this month, some 200 protesters one floor above repudiated the alleged statements of AMIA’s new leader.
“This institution has to represent Argentine Jews, in which the Orthodox are a minority,” said Ezequiel Herszage, 19, a college student and a representative of the Youth Conservative Movement.
Dardo Esterovich, the president of the Convergencia movement for humanistic and plurastic Judaism, told JTA that his “expectations are quite negative.”
“This new AMIA leadership has a very restrictive focus about community life,” Esterovich said.
Borger’s Orthodox United Religious Bloc teamed with the AMIA for All to form the new governing coalition last month.
The coalition was formed after none of the five parties vying to lead the 20,000-member AMIA received the necessary majority in the April election to assume the presidency. The Orthodox bloc garnered 38 percent of the vote, but received unexpected support from AMIA for All, which finished third with 23 percent. AMIA for All is led by Rabbi Sergio Bergman of the Progressive Judaism movement in Argentina. The coalition unseated the Labor Party, which headed Argentina’s Jewish community for 50 years.
Borger will serve three years at the helm. At the inauguration, his predecessor, Luis Grynwald, talked about an institution for all Argentine Jews.
“To me, AMIA means pluralism and appreciating equally every Jew,” Grynwald said.
At his inaugural speech, Borger said AMIA would keep demanding justice in the 1994 terrorist bombing of its community center. The attack killed 85 and wounded hundreds. No one has been brought to justice in the attack, which has been linked to Iran.
Aldo Donzis, the president of the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations, the community’s main political organization, said he saw the emergence of an Orthodox AMIA leader in a positive light.
“All changes produce fear, but we might try to see this as an opportunity with Conservative, Orthodox and lay Jews seated trying to work together,” he told JTA.
Asked about Borger’s alleged comments, Donzis said, “Many of us know how the Orthodox think. The issue is how we all travel a path of concessions.”