How Chabad Took Root in Argentina: The Early Years

The Jewish history of Argentina is as rich and varied as the rest of its culture. Here, the Tzivos Hashem boys choir performs at a holiday celebration in Argentina. Photo courtesy
The Jewish history of Argentina is as rich and varied as the rest of its culture. Here, the Tzivos Hashem boys choir performs at a holiday celebration in Argentina. Photo courtesy

By Dovid Margolin

This is the first 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 – This city pulses with life. During the day, it is a honking, traffic-filled mess. At night, the city’s wide, tree-lined boulevards stretch past people lounging in cafes and restaurants, regularly full until the wee hours of the morning. The grand examples of European-style architecture – vibrant, colorful, cosmopolitan – have gained Buenos Aires a telling moniker, the “Paris of South America.”

The capital and largest city of Argentina, Buenos Aires (“Good Airs” or “Fair Winds”) is the second-largest metropolitan area in South America after Greater São Paulo, Brazil.

Its Jewish history is as rich and varied as the rest of its culture. The first mass immigration of Jews to Argentina took place in the late 1800s, followed by a number of subsequent waves. Constituted mostly of Ashkenazim of European descent, the Jewish community also includes a sizable, organized Sephardic community.

While building their own schools, synagogues and community centers, the Jews of Argentina have taken on some of the customs of their adopted homeland; socializing is one of them. Argentines live life and enjoy it. With a glass of Malbec in hand and enough meat on the grill (in Spanish, the parrilla) to feed a small country, an Argentine social gathering of family, friends and neighbors can last many long, happy hours.

An average Friday-night Shabbat meal will also go late, very late. If someone is celebrating a happy occasion – a bris, a wedding or other life-cycle event – their Jewish friends and fellow community members will come out en masse. At a recent Shabbat afternoon kiddush honoring the birth of a daughter of a community member at Beit Chabad Olleros in Belgrano – a tony Buenos Aires neighborhood dotted with villas and embassies – men, women and children spent an entire summer afternoon eating, drinking and chatting.

Family, community, tradition; this is what makes Argentine Jewry tick.

Political and Economic Instability

Despite the comfortable and fulfilling lifestyle of community and tradition, the story of Argentina’s Jews is not a simple one. Argentina – once a prosperous, beautiful country looked to as an example of South American stability – has been anything but stable for generations. The presidential election of 1989 was the first handover of power to an elected successor in more than 60 years. Populist presidents, military coups and a culture of corruption have made predicting its future a difficult task.

Along with political uncertainty have come intermittent periods of economic crises, the last major one 15 years ago at the cusp of the 21st century. When it comes to Argentina, “it is not a question of if there will be another crisis,” goes the common refrain, “it’s a question of when.”

Many of the country’s Jews have prospered financially, but the community as a whole certainly cannot be defined as wealthy. Indeed, many live in poverty. Along with other communal organizations, Chabad-Lubavitch of Argentina’s Chabad Foundation helps care for Jews in need, and its groundbreaking ieladeinu (Hebrew for “our children”) Jewish child-care center has literally written the book on how communities should respond to instances of child abuse.

Politics and economics have taken their toll on Argentina’s Jewish population; today, the community numbers around 250,000, down from a peak of 400,000 in the 1960s. Most live in Buenos Aires and its environs. The fact that two mass terrorist attacks targeting Jews have never been solved – one at the Israeli embassy in 1992, which killed 29 people; and the other at the AMIA (Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Society) building in 1994, which killed 85 people and injured more than 300 – doesn’t help matters.

Since 1955, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – sent Rabbi Berel Baumgarten as the first Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Argentina, Chabad has had a vast impact on the spiritual and material life of Argentine Jewry. In 1978, Argentine native Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt returned to the country with his wife, Shterna, and they have since run Chabad of Argentina, overseeing what has grown to become a network of 52 synagogues, schools and social-service organizations.

‘It Was a Different World’

It’s 9 p.m. at Chabad Headquarters on Aguero Street, and as usual, Rabbi Grunblatt is at his desk, working. It has been a long day, yet Grunblatt still has a community social function to attend. With a $15 million operating budget to cover – excluding building projects and special events – Grunblatt is busy from morning to evening with nary a break.

His family’s story is similar to that of many Jews who came to Argentina in the 1930s and 1940s, before or right after the Holocaust. His mother was 15 when she arrived in Uruguay with her family in 1940, having escaped war-torn Europe using visas granted to a small number Jews by Florencio Rivas, the Uruguayan consul in Berlin. Grunblatt’s father was in Europe throughout the duration of the war, surviving a Nazi labor camp before ultimately winding up in Argentina in 1947.

“When my mother came on the ship to Uruguay, there was only one other Jewish family on it that kept kosher,” relates Grunblatt. “The others on the ship asked her, ‘Why are you doing this? This is over.’ ”

The Buenos Aires Grunblatt grew up in was a very different place than the thriving Jewish metropolis it is today. “You did not see one beard and not one man covering his head anywhere,” noting that his father bucked the pervading trend by wearing a yarmulka (skullcap), as he did throughout his life. “My mother came to Argentina to get married because my grandfather wanted my mother to marry someone who knew how to study Torah, and there was a much larger community in Buenos Aires than in Uruguay. My grandfather thought that if the young man can learn Torah, then he would succeed at business, too.”

However, quipped the rabbi, “he was wrong about the business part.”

Although there were many traditional synagogues in Argentina, Jewish communal life, according to Grunblatt, was for the most part dominated by liberal strains of Judaism and a variety of radical-revolutionary secular Jewish groups. Jewish schools and social clubs abounded, but religious observance and knowledge of tradition were disappearing at a rapid rate.

The First Emissary

It was as a child that Grunblatt first encountered Chabad in the form of Rabbi Baumgarten, a looming, bearded American chassid who looked out of place on the streets of Buenos Aires.

Baumgarten’s mission to Argentina was not embarked upon with the same detailed research that accompanies the founding of a contemporary Chabad center. Prior to his first journey to South America, originally undertaken for business prospects, he asked the Rebbe for a blessing. The Rebbe gave him shmura matzah, instructing him to distribute it to Jewish people he met throughout his travels.

“The Rebbe told him not to give it for free,” Grunblatt says, remembering Baumgarten’s telling of the event. “The Rebbe told him to give it out, but to demand some form of payment in return; to put on tefillin or place a mezuzah on the door – something. But then, the Rebbe told him that when he comes to a place where the demand for the matzah is so high that he’s forced to break it into pieces, there he should give it out for free, and that is the place he should settle.

“That place was Buenos Aires.”

It was Baumgarten’s genuine Chassidic joy and warmth, coupled with his breadth of Torah scholarship that made him a magnet for Argentine Jews. “When the Jews here saw him, they looked at him as an angel from G-d; they had never seen someone like him,” attests Grunblatt. “He was a holy person.”

Throughout his years there, Baumgarten would serve as a rosh yeshivah, a school teacher, a rabbi, and the chaplain of a Jewish senior home and orphanage. Wherever he went, he left a lasting impression on the Jews he encountered.

“Reb Berel Baumgarten had a great effect on many individuals,” attests Grunblatt. “By 1958, only a few years after he was here, there were already three Argentine yeshivah students learning in the central Lubavitch Yeshiva at 770: Mordechai Srugo and Aaron Tawil, who are both alive and well, and Chaim Swued, who passed away recently.”

But his mission did not begin and end with whatever spiritual effect he might have had on a fellow Jew. “When he became the rabbi of the Jewish orphanage, he fought for the rights of the children. He fought that they should receive fresh food because he saw that the workers were stealing it and leaving the rotting food for the children.”

This approach didn’t make him popular among the staff at the orphanage, who were used to running things as they wished. But for Baumgarten, there could be no other way. Once, he opened the kitchen lights just as some workers were stealing meat meant for the children. When a staff member pulled a gun on the rabbi to threaten him, he responded by opening his shirt and daring them to shoot him.

Life was difficult for him financially; even years after establishing himself in Argentina, his organization remained in debt. At times, he struggled to put food on his table. During a particularly challenging time, he entered the Rebbe’s office for a private audience. “The Rebbe looked at him and said, ‘No more complaints!’ And the Rebbe threw his pencil down on the table,” tells Grunblatt. “ ‘You have to go with joy,’ the Rebbe told him. He said, ‘You have to go with joy not because I said so; you have to want to go with joy yourself.’ ”

While Baumgarten was still in New York, he received a call from Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, the Rebbe’s chief secretary, who told him that the Rebbe had directed that a monthly subsidy be sent to Baumgarten from Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York. Baumgarten would continue receiving that personal subsidy from the Rebbe each month until his passing in 1978.

To New York City and Back

Of the various positions Baumgarten held, one of them was as a rosh yeshivah at the decidedly non-Chassidic Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Buenos Aires. As the child of religious parents, that was where Grunblatt was sent to study in 1967. Inspired and connected to their teacher- Baumgarten – Grunblatt and many of his classmates would eventually affiliate themselves with Chabad, forming what was to become the initial core of the Chabad community in Buenos Aires.

“When it came time for me to go to yeshivah, my father didn’t want to send me to a Chassidic [one]. He thought that first I need to learn the fundamentals, and then after that, I can involve myself with chassidus,” says Grunblatt. “But after searching around, it ended up that in 1969, not many yeshivahs wanted to accept a 15-year-old Argentine student with no money. But Lubavitch took me, so I went to New York.

“At that time, I did not know the difference between Chabad and Satmar; all I knew was Reb Berel Baumgarten, and that he was a real Jew.”

On subsequent trips home – in 1971, and again, in 1976 and 1977 – Grunblatt and his fellow Argentine Chabad yeshivah students energetically worked to help Baumgarten in his work and reach out to more Jews and spread Chabad’s message. Among their activities was a mass Lag BaOmer Parade in 1976, Argentina’s first.

The Era of the Juntas

In March of 1976, the Argentine military executed a coup d’état, deposing President Isabel Peron and replacing the government with a junta comprised of Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, Adm. Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brig. Gen. Orlando Ramon Agosti.

(Peron was the third wife and successor of the highly popular President Juan Peron, who had died in 1974. Peron himself had been the overthrown in a previous coup in 1955, but had been re-elected when democracy returned for a short while in the 1970s.)

Many Argentine Jews were active in leftist politics and labor movements, which labeled them as targets of the junta’s brutal crackdown on political dissidents known as the “Dirty War,” and which saw the arrest and disappearance of thousands of innocent men and women.

“In 1975-76, that was the second time that Merkos shluchim [Chabad emissaries] were sent to Argentina, and we spread out to visit 10 to 15 cities in the country,” explains Grunblatt. “It was during the times of the juntas, and when we came it was like perfect timing for the people. Everybody was listening to us. Before the junta, many Jewish children had belonged to a variety of very leftist, secular Jewish youth organizations, especially in the smaller communities. That was their connection to Jewish life. But the junta closed down all of these leftist groups, including the Jewish ones, so when we came it was like a breath of fresh air for all these communities.”

One Sunday in 1977, Grunblatt remembers going with his brother Nosson to a country club in Buenos Aires, where they stood by a table all day asking Jewish club members to wrap tefillin. One Jewish man refused, but when Nosson Grunblatt (today, the chief editor of the Kehot Publication Society in Spanish) asked him if he would like to talk instead, the man agreed.

“My brother and this man spoke the whole evening, and they agreed Nosson would go to his house to speak to his family, too,” recalls Grunblatt. “My brother ended up speaking to the family about Judaism the whole night and didn’t come home.

“My mother was sure he was kidnapped by the government. We didn’t know who the man was; we didn’t know which house he had gone to. If this Jewish man was some kind of figure on the left, the military could have come in and taken everyone who was in the house, including my brother. In the morning, when he was still not home, my mother began calling the police stations and hospitals. Then my brother walks in to the house in the morning like nothing happened.”

That night might have shaken up Grunblatt’s family, but the effect on the man from the country club was much more profound.

“That family,” adds Grunblatt, emphatically, “is today a large, fully observant Jewish family.”

Passing the Torch

Sometime in the 1970s, Rabbi Berel Baumgarten visited London and then Israel, where he saw Chabad’s unprecedented growth in those places. Big buildings were being erected, while back home, Baumgarten was still working in extremely modest circumstances. On his return to Argentina, he stopped in New York, where he had a private audience with the Rebbe. Baumgarten would usually write a long letter to the Rebbe detailing his work, but this time he wrote nothing. When the Rebbe asked him why he had not written his usual letter, he replied that he had witnessed the scale of work that had been accomplished in England and Israel, and felt that comparatively, he had accomplished nothing at all.

“Success is not measured by buildings, but by students,” the Rebbe replied. Pulling out a report written by the staff at the main yeshivah in 770, the Rebbe pointed at where they had written glowingly of the success of four Argentine yeshivah students sent there by Baumgarten. “This is success,” he said.

Baumgarten passed away in 1978. Shortly thereafter, Chabad community members in Buenos Aires asked the Rebbe to send a new emissary to take the helm of Chabad activities in the country. They requested Grunblatt, who was not yet married, by name.

Not long thereafter, Grunblatt met and married Shterna Kazarnovsky. When the week of Sheva Brachot (“Seven Blessings”) was over, the young couple set out to Argentina for life.

“For life,” he says, “until Moshiach comes.”