Growing up in the ‘Jerusalem of Argentina’

Exploring the Pampas of Argentina; photo Lina Tuv for PresenTense Magazine

by Abigail Pickus

Dashing around Jerusalem, despite the heat that has been enveloping Israel like an unwelcome wool coat, Evelyn Gerson could be any stylish young woman with a head of auburn curls and a cute pair of sandals.

But Gerson, 30, who spent time in Israel this summer for the PresenTense SocialStart Training Course, in partnership with the ROI Community, is a young social entrepreneur from Argentina who grew up in Moisés Ville, the famous Jewish agricultural colony in Argentina whose members have been dubbed the Jewish Gauchos.

One of Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s agricultural colonies – and the first agricultural Jewish colony in South America – its beginnings are legendary. The original 130 families fleeing pogroms and persecution in Eastern Europe came to Argentina in the late 1800s under the promise of working the land and creating a Jewish farm. But the original businessman who offered them the land reneged, thus abandoning these poor and unprepared Yiddish speakers in a foreign and harsh land to sleep in freight cars parked in a shed along the railway line in the province of Santa Fe. Forced to beg for food, the families battled poverty and harsh weather and buried over 60 children who died of disease.

The story has a happy ending, however. Thanks to the dedication of a doctor who happened to be traveling by, saw the families and was appalled by their situation. He brought their plight to the attention of the philanthropist Baron de Hirsch, who agreed to sponsor them. The families were eventually given land to work – and soon the population grew (as recently as the 1930s, Jews escaping Nazism from Germany and Poland also joined the mix) and the colony thrived.

There, former shtetl Jews raised cattle and grew wheat, corn, alfalfa and sunflowers.

At its heyday, Moisés Ville boasted a flourishing cultural life with a renowned Yiddish theater, a library, a seminary that turned out hundreds of Hebrew and Judaica teachers, and two newspapers, one in Spanish and one in Yiddish. The town itself was and is unmistakably Jewish, with Stars of David and Hebrew inscriptions decorating the buildings and street names like State of Israel.

“Being born in Moisés Ville was a very unique experience,” said Gerson. “It gave me the opportunity to understand from a young age about my Jewish heritage and it gave me the freedom to grow up in a place where I never had to explain what it means to be Jewish.”

Today, 10% of the 2,700 people in the village are Jewish. Recently, the Simon Wiesenthal Center requested that Moisés Ville become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“They call it the Jerusalem of Argentina,” Gerson added, explaining that like living in the Jewish State, those who grew up in Moisés Ville breathed in Judaism like oxygen. “On Yom Kippur all the stores close and there are streets with names like Herzl,” said Gerson.

But what is striking about this experience is that Argentina is not Israel and Jews are definitely a minority, with Jews making up an estimated 250,000 out of Argentina’s over 40 million population.

“I have no problem with my Jewish identity and this is very unusual for someone living in the Diaspora, the way it’s so normal to be Jewish in day to day life in Moisés Ville.” Gerson’s family escaped Germany in 1939 and settled in Moisés Ville. Religious Jews, they immediately took up a new profession: working the land. They also lost nearly all of their family in the Holocaust.

Gerson’s late father and mother were both born and raised in Moisés Ville. He worked in the fields with the cows and her mother, a longtime Judaica teacher and administrator at one of the Jewish schools, is today the director of its Jewish community.

While her brother works in the fields and wants to stay in Moisés Ville, as does her sister, who is currently studying in Rosario, Gerson lives in Rosario.

Like many of the younger generation who settled in bigger cities like Buenos Aires or Rosario, Gerson left the security of her home community behind because it lacked professional opportunities.

“But I’ll always stay connected to Moisés Ville,” she said.