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.
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!
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 www.ortamerica.org/missions or call 1-(800)-519-2678, ext. 360.