Day School Gets High Marks for Turning the Jewish Educational Tide in Buenos Aires
By Dovid Margolin
This is the third in a five-part series on Chabad’s impact on Jewish life in Argentina, one of the largest Jewish communities in the world.
Buenos Aires, Argentina – A broad, barrel-chested man, Gabi Levinsky rose to address 150 fellow parents gathered in the cafeteria of the Wolfsohn-Tabacinic School. It was Friday night, and children ran freely around the room as Shabbat dinner stretched late into the muggy Argentine evening. With tears in his eyes, Levinsky thanked the Wolfsohn community for standing with his family following the sudden passing of their daughter a year earlier. By the time his short speech was over, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
Levinsky’s daughter, Julietta, had been a student at Chabad’s Wolfsohn-Tabacinic School, a nursery through seventh-grade Jewish day school in the Belgrano neighborhood of Buenos Aires. A lively, well-adjusted sixth-grader, she was set to begin bat mitzvah lessons with Lea Gurevitch, who with her husband, Rabbi Mendy Gurevitch, co-directs the Wolfsohn-Tabacinic Jewish day school and community center.
“The truth is, we didn’t know the family that well,” says Rabbi Gurevitch. “Julietta was a student here, and my relationship with Gabi was cordial, but not much more than that.”
Then tragedy struck. On Feb. 13, 2014, the Levinskys’ modest home experienced a gas leak. Most of the family – Gabi’s wife, Virginia; son Nico; and daughter Maggie – slept upstairs, but Julietta’s room was on the first floor, near the leak. Gabi managed to get to his eldest daughter and carry her out of the house, but by then, it was too late.
“Julietta’s funeral passed by our school, and a very large number of community members came out,” recalls Gurevitch. “Many of them did not know the Levinskys at all, but they came as a community to show respect.”
Over the past nine years, a close-knit network of parents and students who live in the heavily Jewish Belgrano has formed around the school. When Gurevitch and his wife moved to Buenos Aires in 2011 to lead the community, they threw themselves into strengthening and building upon what was already there, adding adult-education classes and Jewish holiday programs to the roster of activities. Gurevitch also serves as the rabbi of the Wolfsohn-Tabacinic synagogue, whose membership is made up of many of the school’s families, although others attend as well.
It was this community that stepped up to help the Levinsky family during their time of sorrow.
The Levinskys had already been struggling, but their daughter’s death nearly pushed them over the edge. Following the accident, investigators deemed their home uninhabitable, and Gabi Levinsky himself was out of a job. A plan of action was made at a meeting initiated by a group of school mothers and before shiva had concluded, nearly everyone was involved. They found them an apartment and raised enough money to cover rent for a year, delivered food and purchased health insurance for them. Now, a year later, Gabi is working again. “There were times when I did not think we would make it,” Levinsky said to fellow parents that Friday night. “And we couldn’t have without Rabbi Mendy and this community.”
A Message From Julietta
The loss of a child brings with it unimaginable pain for a parent, and although he had a roof over his head and food for his family, Gabi was depressed. He missed his daughter terribly, and nothing could change that. One evening a few days prior to the Shabbat dinner at which he spoke – as had occurred so many times over the course of the year – Gabi was in deep discussion with Gurevitch in the rabbi’s office.
“He was telling me he just could not continue without his daughter,” says Gurevitch. “I told him that even when he doesn’t see his daughter, he can do positive things to remember her. Gabi wasn’t happy with that. He said he needed something more tangible – that he could actually see – and not just hear it from my words.”
It was towards the end of the school year and Julietta’s class, now completing seventh grade, made a yearbook. In it, they included an essay written by Julietta before her passing. It was written from the perspective of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter.
“I’m far away from you father, and I miss you,” wrote Julietta. “I tried to send a letter with a pigeon, but I still feel distant.”
Julietta’s next lines proved to be the answer Gabi was looking for.
“I missed you, too, so I invented the telephone, a way we can stay connected,” reads Bell’s response. “Even when you don’t see me, we’re still connected.”
Sitting in the school’s cafeteria on that late-summer Shabbat, with multi-colored skylights above and children’s art projects around them, the Wolfsohn-Tabacinic community joked together, drank together and cried together. And for the few outside observers joining them, it was clear that they were all part of one large extended family.
A Series of Providential Events
Wolfsohn was founded in 1906 as a Jewish community library before growing to encompass a school and synagogue. Wolfsohn – named after Zionist icon David Wolfson – served as the flagship school of the Conservative movement in Buenos Aires until 2004. Despite its long and proud history of academic excellence, the institution’s finances faltered in the 1990s, and following the Argentine economy’s severe crash in 1998, it was on the brink of collapse. Enrollment at the school had once topped 1,000, but the institution’s precarious finances left it with barely 150 students and heading towards imminent closure.
Argentina’s financial depression was so severe and stretched for so long that at times, paper currency disappeared from the streets, leaving locals to barter in exchange for goods. Facing certain foreclosure, an attempt was made in 2004 to sell off Wolfsohn’s multi-storied edifices piecemeal. But when Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, Argentina’s head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, was given the opportunity not only to purchase the buildings but the school itself, he jumped at the chance to keep the doors open.
Today, he views the series of events leading to Chabad’s purchase of the school as providential.
“One of the first things we did when we got to Argentina in 1978 was meet with the menahelet of the Wolfsohn school,” recalls Grunblatt. “She asked me then if I could give bar mitzvah lessons there, which I did. Twenty-six years later, Chabad took over operation of this same school.”
With the substantial support of Miami-based philanthropist Moises Tabacinic, Chabad was able to save Wolfsohn. In memory of Tabacinic’s father, the institution was renamed the Menahem Mendel Tabacinic Center for Jewish Education-Wolfsohn School.
Grunblatt was one of the school’s biggest proponents at the time, eager to prove that Chabad had what it took to not only improve the school’s Judaic-studies program, but provide students with the same high-level secular education generations of parents had come to expect.
“I saw Rabbi Grunblatt standing on a corner trying to flag down a taxi,” says Marcelo Brukel, the parent of four students at the school. “I recognized him and pulled over to offer the rabbi a ride.”
Their conversation progressed quickly, and Grunblatt soon learned Brukel’s children attended a different school.
“Why not send your children to Wolfsohn?” inquired Grunblatt of him.
“We had been afraid that Chabad’s school would be too religious for me,” remembers Brukel. “But we agreed to go there for an interview and were impressed. Our family has been part of the Wolfsohn community ever since.”
Diego Fainzaig’s experience was similar. The Fainzaigs are a well-established philanthropic family in Buenos Aires, together generously donating to Chabad and other Jewish causes in the country. Well aware of Grunblatt’s passion, Fainzaig nonetheless wasn’t expecting a call from him two weeks before the start of the school year, urging him and his wife to consider Wolfsohn-Tabacinic for their children.
“The director had dust on his face from construction when we came to visit,” says Fainzaig, chuckling. “The next year we moved our youngest child to Wolfsohn, then our older ones. Now we have four children there. It was a very good decision for our whole family.”
Changes Through the Generations
Jewish schools, youth groups and institutions have flourished culturally in Argentina for years. While these organizations may have succeeded at engaging an older generation of Argentines, many younger Jews assert that they have left theirs sorely lacking.
“People my age – between 20 and 40 – we are the children of the Conservative movement here,” explains Sebastian Vedronik, a Wolfsohn-Tabacinic parent who himself attended schools affiliated with that movement. “Our parents felt Jewish; they played in a Jewish football league, and they married Jewish. But they didn’t pass on enough to our generation, and for us, this has turned out badly. Out of my class in a large Jewish high school here, around 50 percent have intermarried.”
Fainzaig describes the school he went to – he attended the same primary school as Vedronik – as culturally Jewish, but strongly against religion. “When I was 11, I remember our class made a mock Shabbat. I was the one to make a blessing on challah, and when I asked the teacher for a kipah before I made the blessing, she told me: ‘It is not important to whom you pray; this is just a custom.’”
“For our parents, it was ‘Conservative,’ ‘Zionist’ or ‘Orthodox,’ ” says Vedronik. “Today, for younger people, it has become Jewish or not Jewish.”
He and others credit Chabad with breaking down the barriers between what had always been considered the realm of the small, secluded Orthodox Jewish communities – Torah study and traditional observance – and the broader Jewish community of Buenos Aires.
“The religious communities were closed to themselves, and therefore, Jews who were not a part of that and did not know had no way of learning more about their tradition,” he explains. “Rav Tzvi [Grunblatt] came here 37 years ago and strengthened Chabad’s work, and that woke up other communities to start engaging nonreligious Jews as well.”
In part due to their own relatively weak Jewish upbringing, young families such as the Vedroniks and Fainzaigs choose to send their children to Wolfsohn-Tabacinic, known for its combination of grounded Jewish studies and rigorous secular education. Beyond the knowledge, they want their children to be active members of the Jewish community.
“During Shabbat lunch, I ask my children what they learned about the Torah portion that week. The youngest starts, the next one adds something, and we go around the table,” explains Fainzaig. “It makes me so happy to be able to see this from my children – to see that they know things about Judaism that I never learned at such a young age.
“My in-laws are less religious than my parents, but they’re happy, too. They see that my children attending this school, it’s not just about them repeating a story. It’s a way of life.”
The Fainzaig family is now sponsoring the total refurbishment of the main hall, which will be named Salon Jaia Waisburg de Fainzaig, after the family’s matriarch.
‘One Big Family’
That the school is more than just that is evident to visitors and members alike. On Shabbat, its recently renovated synagogue fills with a bustling mix of parents, children, alumni and neighbors. Rohr Jewish Learning Institute adult-education courses take place at the school’s brand-new classroom and library area, sponsored by the family of the late Micki Rosenthal, a businessman from Rosario, Argentina, who towards the end of his life became a passionate and innovative contributor to Chabad causes, and whose daughter Ludmila and son-in-law Jonathan Kier-Joffe send their children to Wolfsohn-Tabacinic.
“Another 30 years of Wolfsohn will change the Buenos Aires Jewish community in a big way,” says Moishy Groisman, also a school parent who attends the daily and Shabbat minyan. “Now people are joining not only because of the school, but because of the community. They come seven days a week. There are classes, a yeshivah at night for adults, Shabbat programs for the children. These people are our friends.”
Parents credit the Gurevitches for how well the community has meshed and grown in recent years. Two years ago, they were joined by Rabbi Gad Pichel as youth director, who is responsible for extracurricular children’s activities at Wolfsohn-Tabacinic – such as father-and-son Torah study, Shabbaton trips and afterschool programs.
With the assistance of CTeen International, this past April Rabbi Meir and Debi Plotka joined Wolfsohn-Tabacinic to direct the CTeen program there, reaching out to Jewish teenagers in the area as well as former students of the school who have moved on to various Jewish and non-Jewish high schools in the area.
In fact, due to the school and community’s rapid growth, a high school with the same name is now in the works, its doors set to open in March of 2016.
“When we started here, the community wasn’t really born yet,” states Fainzaig. “We didn’t do much here besides for drop our children off. After Rabbi Mendy came, things started to change quickly. He has appeal, he has a way of making people feel comfortable, so the community started to grow. This has become one big family.”
“If I wasn’t part of this community, I would not know how to have a Jewish home,” adds yet another school parent, Fabian Bukschtein. “I learned everything here.”
The first article in the series, “How Chabad Took Root in Argentina: The Early Years” can be read here.
The second article in the series, “Step by Step, Chabad Makes Inroads, and Friends, in Argentina” can be read here.