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Jewish Community Studies

Are the Jews of Argentina Disappearing?

Daniel J. Elazar

For two decades Argentinian Jewry has been portrayed as a dying community. First there was the collapse of the community's cooperative banking system in the 1960s. Then the disproportionate impact of right-wing counter-terror on the Jewish community. That was followed by a general sense of decline in the commitment of individual Jews to communal institutions as reflected in lower turnout in community elections and less involvement in communal activities other than the sports clubs which were refuges for Jews but not strongholds of Jewishness.

Then in the 1970s came the demographic issue. A Tel Aviv University study of Argentinian Jewry revealed that accepted estimates of half a million Jews in the country were gross exaggerations. Subsequent studies by the Hebrew University demographers dropped the number of Jews to below 300,000, initially 265,000 and most recently less than 235,000, indicating that assimilation and emigration were taking a drastic toll. For most of the Jewish world the verdict was that we are witnessing the effective end of a community once viewed as a model of successful Jewish communal life in the diaspora.

This winter's recent visit to Argentina has left me with the belief that the obituary is premature. The problems of Argentinian Jewry are real enough, whether they are the common problems of assimilation and acculturation shared by all the diaspora or whether they are problems distinctive to the Argentinian situation. But that is not the whole story. My first surprise was with regard to the demographic situation. True, it was not entirely a surprise since I had earlier come to the conclusion that proper scientific caution had led the demographers to somewhat underestimate the number of Jews in Argentina. But there I discovered that the Vaad HaKehilot, the federation of Jewish communities, had begun to conduct sample censuses of its own in smaller provincial communities and in the two just completed they had discovered significantly larger numbers of Jews than they had hitherto estimated. If future censuses of this kind follow the same pattern, then we will have to substantially revise our present estimates upward.

My next surprise was to find that Hebrew was still more widespread as the language of the Jewish leadership than in any other diaspora community that I know. I would not like to suggest that it is the common Jewish language in Argentina but it was clearly easier for me to speak Hebrew than English with many of the people that I met. Less surprising but still pleasing was to note that although the old Eastern European-originated institutions of the community have indeed declined, the community is regrouping around others.

Particularly notable in this respect is the revival among the Sephardic Argentinian Jewry. The Sephardim had always been able to better accommodate their Jewishness with integration into larger Argentinian society since they came from similarly Mediterranean civilizations. Nevertheless, their Jewish ways remained private, confined to their homes and synagogues.

Now the Sephardim are undergoing something of a Jewish renaissance, expanding their institutions and most especially their day schools, and undergoing a religious revival as well. In all of this they are helped by the fact that their institutions have more money at their disposal (at least per capita) than those of the Ashkenazi community. The Ashkenazim are still suffering from the failure of their cooperative banks , while the Sephardic Banco de Mayo survived and has subsequently flourished so that it can provide substantial funding and credit for community projects. In addition, the younger generation of Sephardim is more likely to continue in the family business than is the case among the Ashkenazim, where the younger generation tends to go into academic life or the professions, further reducing the disposable wealth that can be tapped for communal purposes.

In general, Jewish religious life in Argentina has become more important. Originally an almost totally secular community with an absolute minimum of traditional Orthodox institutions, maintained principally for appearances sake, today an increasing number of Argentinian Jews are finding out what Jews in other diasporas have discovered, that surviving as Jews requires some kind of religious identification and expression. A leader in this revival has been the Conservative movement, an import from the United States that, through the excellent work of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, was successfully transplanted and adapted to the Argentinian scene. His original Conservative congregation has grown in to a small network of congregations, a rabbinical seminary, teachers institute, publications program, summer Camp Ramah, and a wide variety of programs attracting thousands of Argentinian Jews. Indeed the rabbinical seminary has become the principal source of rabbis for other Latin American Jewish communities as well.

More recently the haredi phenomenon has reached Argentina as well. Ultra-Orthodox Jews from Habad to old Agudat Israel have entered the life of Argentinian Jewry, founding yeshivot and other institutions and in general moving a segment of the community to ultra-Orthodoxy, an utterly new experience in Argentinian Jewish history. In Buenos Aires the ultra-Orthodox have ensconced themselves in the principal Sephardic neighborhood and are both influencing some of the Sephardim and clashing with others over their particularly dogmatic interpretation of Judaism.

Another sign of the new-found energy among Argentinian Jews was to be found at the meeting of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association. That organization, founded originally by North Americans, led by Dr. Judith Laiken Elkin of Michigan, the organization's driving force, could not even meet in Latin America until its fifth conference. This year for the first time its meeting was held outside of the United States, in Buenos Aires with the co-sponsorship of the AMIA, the umbrella organization or kehilla of Buenos Aires. Even more impressive were the number of young Latin American and particularly Argentinian scholars who presented papers at the meeting, in many cases based upon field research. In other words, Argentinian Jewry is becoming sufficiently mature to begin to examine itself through accepted scientific methods and sufficiently important in the eyes of its younger generation to be considered worth examining. In our complex world a community that is not studied cannot be understood and any phenomenon that does not attract scholarly inquiry is ipso facto unimportant. Thus the new strength of LAJSA is another sign that Argentinian Jewry has entered a new stage in its development.

None of this is to suggest that Argentinian Jewry is not undergoing all the pangs of assimilation or confronting all the elements of anti-Semitism, usually discussed in describing it. What is important to note is that there is another side to the story as well. As always, we have a community of Jews living on the razor's edge, showing signs of both growth and decline. Equally important, no longer is Argentinian Jewry simply a Zionist or Israeli colony. Today it is moving toward a situation where its voice could also be heard in the councils of world Jewry and it will have something to contribute.

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