What the Argentine Jewish Community Can Teach Us

What message should I impart to the congregation about my trip to Argentina? As I sat down at a quarter to five on Friday to determine this (very unusual for me, as I tend to write my sermons weeks in advance), I realized that in my 26 pages of notes I easily have enough material for 5 sermons. I could discuss the tension between the Argentine government and the Jewish community, how Marshall Meyer founded the Seminario, the bastion for the Reform and Conservative Argentine Jewish community, the relationship between synagogues and rabbis to one another or the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Pope Francis. In the end, however, I felt that the most important story is the lessons that the Argentine Jewish community has to teach us.

I went with the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America on a 4 day mission to Buenos Aires. The Rabbinic Cabinet creates an annual mission in partnership with the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Previous Rabbinic Cabinet missions have gone to expose rabbis to Judaism in the Former Soviet Union, where organized Jewish communities were forbidden and Jews who remained were at high levels of poverty, staying because they could not get out. On these missions I’m told it’s clear as night and day the work that the JDC does, providing Jews with food in a dignified way and helping them get secure living quarters as well as helping reestablish a centralized Jewish community. Why then would the JDC go to Buenos Aires, a country with a very strong and well-organized Jewish community, centered on the Delegacion De Associaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA) and the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA)?

Marty Mehler spoke on Yom HaShoah about the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the bombing of AMIA in 1994. In spite of these atrocities (AMIA has been the greatest attack on any Jewish community since the Holocaust); the Argentine Jewish community persevered and continued forward. In 2001 however the Argentine community collapsed…and I mean COLLAPSED. According to a study by Harvard economists, this collapse was 4 TIMES as bad as the one we faced in 1929. Argentine went through 5 presidents in a span of 3 weeks. Within a short period of time, banks closed and people lost their life savings. The upper middle class Jewish community (quite similar to the one we had) was hit as hard as everyone else. People wearing nice suits were foraging garbage cans in search of food. One person recounted “My apartment is nice but one cannot eat the walls.”

To this chaotic situation entered the JDC. The JDC quickly discovered that the Argentine Jewish community (at that time 400,000, now 250,000) had given billions of dollars to Israel but had not set up an infrastructure to give to local needs. The JDC launched programs to help the Argentine Jews sustain themselves and they have been so successful that today only one of them is still run by the JDC.

On the last day of the mission, we went to the JDC’s program Baby Help, held at the low-income Tel Aviv School. Baby Help provides food and medicine for children aged 0-5 as well as for pregnant women. When the program began there were 30 kids who benefitted from it; 10 of them have since aged out. The JDC has helped renovate the Tel Aviv School (which at the time had dilapidated classrooms) and has enabled low-income students to continue to attend the school.

The other program we saw was the L’Dor VaDor Nursing Home. This home was nicer than any nursing home I have ever seen. It was formed when a local donor had to enroll his parent in a nursing home. The Sephardi home was full, as was the Ashkenazi home, and the third one was so deteriorated that this donor went into action and created a new nursing home. The JDC contributed 5% of the money for the home; the rest of it was raised through local fundraising. The government does not support the home at all, so everything needed to sustain it needs to come from the local community.

It’s great to see the work of the JDC but what is the take away for our community? For starters it’s that the entire Argentine Jewish community came together at the point of economic crisis. Whether one was liberal or conservative, Reform or Orthodox, the community took ownership of local Jewish institutions and worked to ensure their sustainability at a time of economic collapse. They fulfilled the maxim of כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה, that all of Israel is responsible for one another. In a community where 60% of the children go to day school, donors stepped forward to ensure that many of those day schools would continue and that students could attend regardless of financial need. It was best put by one of the trip participants, that “This is a community who knows who they are and what they value.”

We can also learn from the Argentines’ passion for Israel; and I mean TRUE passion. There were 4000 people at the communal Yom HaAtzmaut celebration on Monday (in past years there have been 8000) and there was ruach-filled dancing and singing by all ages, from the youth movements to the seniors. The Argentine community has prided themselves on Hebrew fluency, and their Hebrew immersion is something to admire. What’s remarkable to me is that in other ways this community is so much like our own, with an intermarriage rate of over 50% and anti-Zionism permeating college campuses. At the same time, the Argentine Jews have strong Jewish identities and have a commitment to Israel and Hebrew that is second-to-none. I hope that our community can learn to be responsible for and dedicated to one another to the extent of the Argentine Jewish community. I also hope that each of us will support the work of our local Federation both here and abroad to ensure that the Federation can continue to strengthen and reinforce communities which are in need. Thank you to the Jericho Jewish Center for giving me the privilege of attending this mission and of representing our community.

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