Notes from Jewish South America

South American Jews image
New friends at ORT technical high schools’s Alambro campus in Buenos Aires.

South America has a rich Jewish history, one that most Jews outside of Latin America know little about. This spring, I traveled to South America to learn about the Jewish communities of two countries, Uruguay and Argentina, on a media mission organized by ORT America.

ORT America is supported by World ORT, the not-for-profit, non-governmental education and training organization, and a beneficiary of JUF overseas dollars through the United Jewish Communities.

In addition to making some new Jewish friends in Uruguay and Argentina, I got to eat some world-famous Argentine (kosher) steak, take in a Tango show, and brush up on my college Spanish…Salud!

Notes from Uruguay…

David Telias was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, but has traveled back and forth between Israel and Uruguay his whole life. At age 10, he made aliyah with his family for one year. “In those days, I did not understand why we did this, but I never could get it out of my mind,” he said. “It was the first time I asked myself what it means to be Jewish.” From that day forward, Telias felt a deep connection to Israel. His story is a familiar one within the Jewish community of Uruguay, a person with allegiance to Uruguay, but a strong tie to the Jewish homeland as well.

A Jewish studies and history professor at ORT Uruguay University, Telias acted as our guide through Uruguay. Uruguay has a Jewish population of about 23,000 Jews, 75% of whom are Ashkenazi, different from most other Latin American countries with a larger Sephardic population, according to Telias. The Jewish community, mainly centered in Uruguay’s capitol city of Montevideo, is tight-knit, though not religious, with a strong bond with Israel, which enjoys better relations with Uruguay than with any other country in Latin America, according to Telias.

Our host in Uruguay was ORT Uruguay University, the country’s largest private university. In 1942, ORT University was first established as a Jewish trade school for refugees from Europe, according to Charlotte de Grunberg, director general of ORT Uruguay.

In the 1950s, ORT expanded to include non-Jews as well and spent more time specializing in technological areas and providing vocational training to technicians and professionals, according to Grunberg. When she arrived in Uruguay in the late 1970s from her hometown in Belgium, she helped transform the school into a university.

Grunberg didn’t want the school to compete with Jewish day schools because she believed in the power of Jewish continuity. At the same time, after the military rule, from 1973-1985, the quality of education at the public university deteriorated, she said, so she hoped Jewish university-bound students would turn to ORT as an option.

“Jewish parents want the best for their children,” Grunberg said. “We decided we would start to try to maintain one of the best universities in the country.” Then, in 1996, ORT University was officially certified as a private institution. Today, more than 8,000 students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, undergraduate and graduate, attend.

During our visit, we held a roundtable discussion with a group of students and recent graduates. Among them was Martin Kalenberg, who graduated from the School of Communication and now writes for a Uruguayan weekly Jewish magazine. Several years ago, he published a piece on the investigation of the Munich Olympics, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. (The Uruguayan delegation was housed in the same building as the Israeli team.) 

“The community is more Zionistic than religious—Israel is most important,” Kalenberg said, describing the Uruguayan Jewish community’s ties to Israel. “There are secular and religious Jews here but, to everyone, Israel is most important. Israel unites those who are involved and who are not involved in the community.”

Maia Hojman is an articulate, young community leader with a passion for the Jewish people. A graduate in public accounting, she was elected to run the 500-member Jewish youth organization, ‘Macabi Tzair,’ which entails planning educational activities. Five years ago, she traveled on a youth trip to Israel through the Jewish United Fund’s overseas arm, the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Hojman, along with the majority of the other young people we spoke to, attends the Yavne Synagogue, located in the Pocitos neighborhood of Montevideo. Hojman lights up when talking about the Orthodox synagogue, led by a 28-year-old rabbi named Tzvi Elon. The rabbi’s young age and enthusiasm attracts many young people to the shul. Hojman outlines her Friday night routine each week, not a traditionally religious one, but a Jewishly-centered one nonetheless. “I get in a car and drive to synagogue,” she said, “and then to my grandma’s for Shabbat dinner.”

Notes from Argentina…

Cindy Russo, age 16, attends ORT’s Belgrano campus, one of the two ORT technical high schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Students choose a concentration after three years of school, with choices from mass media to electronics to music. Russo--one of more than 4,000 students who attend the schools--has selected the management track and is interested in furthering her studies in business when she graduates next year. She loves the combination of choosing an area of interest and simultaneously getting a strong Jewish education. Russo recently returned from Israel, earning the trip as part of an incentive program for students with high grades.

Buenos Aires is home to 180,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Latin America and the seventh largest in the world. The country has a tumultuous Jewish history. Back when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, they began settling and assimilating into Argentina during the first wave of Jewish immigration to the country. Centuries later, after World War II, President Juan Peron rose to power and allowed the country to become a haven for Nazi war criminals. 

In the 1990s, Argentina’s Jewish community suffered twin terrorist attacks. First, in 1992, the Israeli Embassy was bombed, killing 32 people. Then, two years later, the Jewish community headquarters—the AMIA building—was bombed, killing 85 people and wounding several hundred others in the deadliest bombing in Argentina’s history. Authorities have yet to solve either bombing case but, three years ago, Argentine prosecutors formerly accused the government of Iran of orchestrating the AMIA bombing through the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah.

Then, in 2001, Argentina’s economy collapsed, devastating the Jewish community’s strong middle class, plunging many Jews into poverty for the first time. Argentina’s economy had since somewhat rebounded in recent years, but then declined again in this past year’s global economic crisis.

Guillermo Borger is the president of AMIA, which offers the largest job-finding network in Argentina, aiding both Jews and non-Jews alike. He said that AMIA strove to help the decimated middle class during the economic collapse.

“It was hard to find the people [who needed our help] because they were ashamed,” he explained. “They were people who didn’t previously have needs.”

On our tour, we visited the AMIA building, which was reconstructed after the bombing. Today, the building has tight security and features a memorial to the many bombing victims in its entrance. “[We knew] life would come again, so we decided to rebuild,” said Aldo Donzis, president of DAIA, the political representation of the Argentine Jewish community, which represents 15 Jewish institutions, tracks anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination, and is housed in the AMIA building.

Jewish representatives in Argentina, as well as across Latin America, fear the growing ties between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The friendship between the two anti-Semitic leaders has helped Iran and Muslim fundamentalists penetrate Latin America in recent years.

“This relationship has created more insecurity, not just in Argentina but in all of South America,” said Donzis. “Chavez opened the door in Latin America so that they can come here without being investigated.”

Anti-Semitism strikes in the daily lives of Argentine Jews, according to Donzis, but DAIA strives to combat it. He referred to a recent soccer game in Argentina, where the crowd sang a chant against Jews; the soccer referee didn’t understand why the chant was inappropriate. DAIA later signed an agreement with the Argentine Soccer Association to teach against the evils of anti-Semitism during referee training.

While the Jewish community of Argentina faces challenges each day, 16-year-old Russo explains what she loves about being a Jewish Argentine teenager.

“Luckily, in Buenos Aires, we have a pretty big community which includes many Jewish schools, clubs, and many many synagogues,” she said. “Actually it is really good because at all these places, you end up knowing almost the whole community, because you have a cousin in common, or just friends in common. It makes me proud to know that I am part of the Jewish minority in my country.”

ORT was founded in Tzarist Russia in 1880 to teach impoverished Jewish Russians skills needed at that time. Today, ORT students are trained in technical skills such as computers, telecommunications, robotics, and nanotechnology at technical schools around the world. ORT America will host a solidarity mission to Argentina and Uruguay from Nov. 9-15.Visit or call 1-(800)-519-2678, ext. 360.


Partnering with organizations in South America

Working within the Federation system, the American Jewish Joint Distribution (JDC), the Jewish Agency for Israel—the two overseas arms of the Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF/JF)—and Latin American Hillels perform outreach in Jewish communities around Latin America. World
ORT is also a beneficiary of JUF overseas dollars through the United Jewish Communities.

The JDC provides training in Latin America to enhance local infrastructure, programs, and community planning. The overseas arm has operated in Argentina since World War II and was able to spearhead an immediate, comprehensive network of critical programs following the economic collapse in 2001 in Argentina. Spillover from the crisis has affected neighboring Uruguay as well. Together with JDC, a program called Tzedaka-Uruguay adapted programs and models in Argentina to address critical need among local Jews, with input from JUF.

The JUF/JF has had a strong relationship with Latin America, especially Buenos Aires, for more than two decades. The JUF/JF has provided ongoing assistance through the JDC and JAFI and special assistance during the difficult times faced by the Jewish community following the terrorist attacks of 1992 and 1994 and the economic upheaval of 2001.

There are both ongoing professional and lay connections to the community, and JUF/JF professionals have shared their knowledge and experience with Buenos Aires Jewish community professionals.

Jorge Schulman, associate director of the JDC’s Latin American office in Buenos Aires, speaks to how the Jews of Argentina have fared since the 2001 crisis. “Some people are doing well, and some that failed during the crisis in 2001 are today self-sufficient again,” he said. “However, there were a [large] number people that were over 50 during the crisis and couldn’t get back into their jobs. The regular caseload of the community was 4,500 beneficiaries and today there are more than 12,000. This put the community under pressure.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel focuses its work in Latin America on immigration issues, Jewish and Israel education, and aliyah.

Jewish life on campus thrives in Latin America as well. Gabriel Trajtenberg founded Hillel Argentina in 2002, following the Argentine economic collapse. Then, three years ago, he became regional director of Latin American Hillels, which encompasses Argentina, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay. In total, Latin American Hillels reaches out to 15,000-20,000 South American Jewish students.

The JUF/JF also has a close working partnership with  the Latin American Jewish community. “The relationship between this Federation and Jewish communities in Latin America has developed from  a recognition that despite differences in language, we do share many values in common including our commitment to  Israel and desire for strong local Jewish communities,  and  that we can both learn from  and help one another,” said Peter Friedman, executive vice president of Planning & Allocations for JUF/JF.

Last year, JUF provided Latin American Hillels with a three-year $84,000 grant aimed at providing services and connecting North American Jewish student visitors (estimated at 2,000 annually) to the organized local Jewish community when they are visiting/studying in Argentina, and connecting them to their Jewish community when they return from their travels. As a result of this grant, a guide for Jewish travelers studying abroad in Argentina was produced in English to facilitate outreach, and The Hillels of Illinois has arranged for students to visit during semester break periods.

JUF News spoke with Trajtenberg about his work with Jewish students at Latin American Hillels.

JUF News: You created Hillel Argentina in the wake of the first economic crisis in Argentina in 2001. Why did you create it?

Gabriel Trajtenberg: We founded it to create seeds of hope among the younger generation during the Argentina crisis.

Q. What is the mission of Latin American Hillels?
A. We follow the mission of Hillel International. We try to expose to the young generation to meaningful Jewish experience to ensure Jewish continuity among the young generation.

Q. What sort of programming do you offer?
A. We have everything. We have activities, Jewish learning, culture, holiday celebrations, we have complementary Jewish education from the universities, we help students compete in the labor market. Because we are not on campus, our Hillel center is very much like a JCC would be in the United States. We are not a religious organization. We don’t have, for instance, Shabbat services because we are not competing with the area synagogues. We have a lot of activities from Monday thru Friday and Sunday, but on Shabbat most of our students are with their families because most are commuter students.

Q. I know your Hillels do a lot of tzedakah work. Tell me about it and why that’s important to you.
A. We focus a lot on tzedakah activities. We opened a new division in the Latin American region called “Hillel Latin America Tzedek Corps” with the intention of bringing together students from all the regions to do tikun olam. It’s a way that we integrate students, we celebrate Jewish identity, and we are focusing on our identity and our mission of the Jewish people—tikun olam and gemilut hasadim.

Q. What sort of Israel programming do you offer throughout the Hillel regions?
A. We have a strong [component] in our Hillels on advocacy and we have strong activist leaders on behalf of Israel. In each city, they have their own identity according to the Jewish community’s reality. In Argentina, we’re more focused on the media, trying to explain to the journalists what is going on in Israel. In Brazil, our Hillel in Rio de Janeiro led a rally against President Ahmadinejad and he canceled his trip to Brazil. In Uruguay, we do a lot of Israel advocacy and education. Our communities are very Zionist so Israel advocacy is one of our main focuses. We also send people to Israel through Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Q. Why are you so passionate about working with young Jewish college students?
A. Working today, we are impacting the future. This is our chance to provide Jewish education to the young generation. After 20 years of going to the Jewish day school or high school and then they come to us, we are their last chance to engage their Jewish identity. What we do today impacts their future. It’s tough work, but it’s very exciting.

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