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It has taken me forever to draft this article on the Jewish Community in Buenos Aires and of course, now that it is in draft form, my daughter would like it for the Passover issue of her newspaper. I would be very grateful if you could look the article over and tell me if I have the facts correct.... and the emphasis in the right place. I hope you will see that I was listening carefully to what you shared with Ted and I but I do want to know that it is correct. The writing is still a bit rough but I wanted to get this to you before more time went by.
I have not right to ask you to hurry with this but I will ask anyways as I do not wish to miss her publishing deadline which will be this Sunday. By the way, I have wonderful pictures from much of the morning together and I know that she will choose several.
I wish you and your family a frailich Pesach
Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA
Argentinean Jewish community
Buenos Aires is the largest city in Argentina and estimates of its current population range from three to 11 million, depending on how many suburban areas are included in the count. At its peak, the Jewish community in the entire country was 500,000, making it the largest Spanish-speaking Jewish population in the world. Today, there are about half that many in Argentina, and the Jewish population of Buenos Aires is about 165,000. About 75 percent of Jewish migration has been from Ashkenazi communities; the remaining 25 percent are Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jews.
The first Jewish migration to
Argentina occurred in the late 1880s and brought Russians Jews from the
Ukraine. These Jews were able to escape the pogroms in Europe and were
helped by the Jewish Colonization Association, established by Baron
Maurice Hirsch. Hirsch’s benevolence provided these pioneers with land
and tools in exchange for a loan that they were expected to pay with
future crops. The first wave of these immigrants passed quickly through
Buenos Aires and onto a settlement in Sante Fe province, 750 kilometres
from the city. There, they established the community of Moisesville.
Some were already agricultural workers but many had to learn to work the
land from scratch. In the Association Mutual Israeli Argentina (AMIA)
building and the Museum of the Shoah, there are pictures of Jewish
“gauchos,” sitting astride horses, peyes streaming from the sides of
their faces. One can imagine them in the local cafe, drinking the local
drink, and speaking Yiddish.
The Buenos Aires Jewish community today is about 20 percent Orthodox, which means that there are at least 35,000 potential patrons for the many kosher restaurants, butchers and other services required by observant Jews. About 30 percent of the community considers itself to be either Conservative or Reform, and about 50 percent are unaffiliated.
The central area within Buenos Aires, Once (pronounced On-say), bounded by Avenida Cordoba, Junin, Avenida Rivadavia and Avenida Pueyrredon streets, is where many Jews live and have their businesses. A Jewish person owns the largest mall in the city (Abasto Mall), which has a mezuzah on its door post, as well as the only kosher McDonald’s in the city. Strolling through Once, one can see evidence of a rich Jewish life: kosher restaurants, Jewish bookstores, publishers, butchers, and synagogues.
Notwithstanding evidence of a rich Jewish life, this is a community that still bears many scars. During the time of the military dictatorship in the 1970s, when people simply “disappeared” at the hands of the Junta (military-led government), Jews were 0,5% of the general population, but Jewish young adults compromised about 5% of the population who went missing and whose bodies have never been found. Some feel that the disproportionate losses may have been because, during the Junta, more Jews stood up for justice and, ultimately, their children paid the price. In the 1970s, anti-junta demonstrations took place in a large plaza, the Plaza de Mayo, opposite the government’s Rose Palace. For the last 40 years, since the “disappeared” were taken, a group of mothers (and now their daughters and granddaughters) has demonstrated peaceably in the Plaza. On our trip to Argentina, my husband and I came upon a group of these women and, in halting Spanish, asked if we might take their picture and told them that, as parents, we felt for them. They unfurled their banner for the photo, pressed some literature upon us and held our hands for a moment.
The founder of the Madres (Mothers) des Plaza de Mayo – Renee Epelbaum – is a well known Jewish woman who lost all three of her children. According to the book The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (Madres de Plaza de Mayo) by Marjorie Agosin, Epelbaum’s son Luis disappeared in 1976, son Claudio and daughter Lila were abducted four months later. Disappearances and kidnappings were a systematic practice designed by the junta to neutralize the political and social mobilization of citizens against repressive dictatorships. Some 30,000 people are believed to have disappeared in Argentina, where the military took over after Juan Peron in 1976 and the “Dirty War” began – its first victims were labor union members, university activists, journalists, but then the abductions became random.
Another scar was created in 1992, when the Israeli embassy located in central Buenos Aires was bombed. Twenty-nine died, as did five Catholics, who were in the church that abutted the building. The embassy was rebuilt in a new location, There is a stone monument in its original location – with a small glade of tilo trees planted within it. A guide giving us a tour of “Jewish Buenos Aires” explained that the tilo tree is known to have calming qualities and that these trees were chosen as a message to the victims that they should rest in peace. No one has ever been brought to justice for this bombing.
Another attack occurred in 1994, when a suicide bomber ploughed into the Jewish federation (AMIA) building, killing 85 people. The building has subsequently been rebuilt, further in from the street and with heavy security. Outside the building, the first names of the 85 who were lost are written on a tableau in a style that almost looks like graffiti. We were not permitted to take a photograph of the tableau but our guide explained that there are no last names on the tableau because all who died are held by the community to be “ family.” There are small memorial headstones with the names of the victims lining the street by the new building. The death toll would have been much higher had the additional 300 wounded not been quickly evacuated to a hospital within two blocks of the AMIA. As with the 1992 bombing, no one has ever been brought to justice.
When life is like for the Jews
within the country, our guide said, “Even there are not restricted
laws against Jews, We know that we are not welcome in and by the
government. There are a couple of Jewish congressmen and some Jewish
judges but there are still some sports and cultural institutions where
Jews know they are not welcome.
We know that those who bombed the embassy and the Federation building
could not have acted alone and that finding them has not been a priority
for the government. The response of the community has been to ask for
justice and to grow our own institutions.
But life goes on, and then we are still an active comunity
In addition to the terrorist threats, Argentina has experienced several economic crises, which have affected Jews as deeply as they have other. Many left the country during these crises, which has reduced the size of the community.
dimensions of today’s Jewish community
In Buenos Aires, the AMIA Centre, is clearly the heartbeat of the community. AMIA started 116 years ago. Its mission is “to promote the individual, family and institutional growth of Jewish life in Argentina to ensure continuity, sustain the values of the Jewish people and underpin the sense of community”. Among AMIA’s activities are a variety of social services that are delivered to both Jewish and non-Jewish clients, including training programs to assist those in need of assistance finding employment. AMIA is largely funded by the community itself, although the government or a private company will occasionally contribute funds in support of an activity. On the day we toured the building, there was evidence of the many dimensions of community: social service agencies with headquarters in the building, the Chevra Kaddusha society, a poster exhibit about the early roots of the community, a kosher restaurant , community arts hall , a gift store and some beautiful and unique artistic installations. The most breathtaking of these is the piece entitled “Monument to the Memory of the Victims of the Terrorist Attack on AMIA” by Yaacov Agam, a world renowned Israeli plastic artist. AMIA’s brochure Visiting the Jewish Community in Argentina describes the piece “as a visual prayer that becomes a symbol against terrorism and a permanent expression of the Jewish people’s struggle for truth, justice and peace”. The installation is a series of 9 vertical, highly colorful planks. When the observer moves around the installation, the colors and shapes turn into changing images drawn from Judaism . Among these are the image of Chanukah, a reminder that miracles are possible, a rainbow , which was God’s gift to Noah and all living creatures after the flood and the international symbol of AMIA itself, representing a community which is once more standing drawing on its own strength. There is also the intertwined images of flags of both Israel and Argentina.
Our tour of Jewish Buenos Aries also included a visit to the beautiful 91 year old Gran Templo Paso, an Orthodox synagogue with a familiar story within the community. In recent years, it began to lose members and decided to accommodate those who wanted a more modern and conservative- leaning interpretation of rituals. When that shift stirred up other issues, the synagogue reverted to orthodox practice. One of the most moving moments was seeing the numbers of Sefer Torahim for which the synagogue is now the keepr. Many of these Torah scrolls belong to rural synagogues which are no longer in regular use because the Jews have migrated to larger centers. We were told that many of them are returned to the communities for the High Holidays when attendance is at a maximum
Buenos Aires has a small and elegant Museum of the Shoah. On the day that we attended, there was a beautiful photographic display of survivors of the camps taken within recent years when most were quite elderly. Even line, every wrinkle, every tilt of a chin told a story. The permanent collection includes considerable information, the conditions leading up to the War and the hardships endured by the Jews in the camps.
Beyond what we were shown and sought out for ourselves, my husband and I felt a Jewish presence throughout our trip. Walking in the neighbourhood where we had rented an apartment one Friday evening, we were waiting for a street light to change and found ourselves standing beside a young man with a beard and kippuh, his wife and baby. Within a moment of my saying “Shabbat Shalom” , we were welcomed to the city and invited to one of the Chabad’s community events later that week.
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