In Argentina, Finding Another Layer to My Jewish Self
By Dalia Amrom
Say the name “Mar del Plata” to any Argentinean and scenes of a beautiful seaside resort and major fishing port will come to mind. Refer to it as bustling center for Jewish life and you may come up short.
But for the four days I spent in Mar Del Plata’s close-knit Jewish community, I found that in fact to be true. Despite its tiny size – around 80 families in total – the community is exceptionally connected and active. The adults attend religious services collectively, the teenagers volunteer through a Jewish youth group, and the youngest children study at Sunday school together.
Witnessing this unique strength of spirit was one of the highlights of an incredibly transformative travel and service experience that instilled within me a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish community and enhanced my Jewish identity.
What made my trip all the more powerful were my traveling companions: more than 20 Russian-speaking Jewish college students participating in JDC Entwine’s first Insider Trip to Argentina, part of an important partnership with Genesis Philanthropy Group to expand opportunities for young Jewish Russian speakers. The partnership recognizes the importance of the next generation of Russian-speaking Jews in the future of Jewish community life by engaging Russian-speaking Jewish young adults like me with global Jewish issues through service opportunities and educational forums in our home communities.
This experience also introduced another step in my journey to Jewish self-discovery. This path began with my parents – born in the former Soviet Union – and has progressively covered thousands of miles from Israel to Canada and now to Jewish communities I didn’t realize existed. My formative Jewish identity was influenced by being in Israel, where the great majority of my friends were Jewish. Then I immigrated to Canada and suddenly became part of a minority group, where my Jewishness set me apart. At first, I hung out with non-Jews who spoke Russian and sometimes made Jewish jokes. Uncomfortably, I noticed the difference between them and me.
But I also learned to appreciate my Jewishness more. So I joined a Jewish organization called JIAS (Jewish Immigrant Aid Services) and slowly became part of a youth group for recently immigrated Jewish teens, “Youth to Youth.” There, I met other Russian speakers from Israel and Jews from Turkey and Brazil. Five years later, I became the leader of this group, and began helping Jewish youth from all over the world to become more comfortable with their new life in Canada. My involvement with JIAS along with my increasing connection to the Jewish community laid the foundation to my decision to travel to Argentina, where I ultimately discovered so much more to being Jewish.
During our first few days in Mar Del Plata, we visited homes of local residents and helped paint the Jewish community center, the Sociedad Unión Israelita Marplatense, (SUIM).
Being able to understand Spanish, I sought to have in-depth discussions with the locals. For example, during the home visits, I conversed with one of the seniors and gained a comprehensive view of the hardships he endured during Argentina’s harrowing economic crisis in 2001 and the present challenges he faces. It was a special and emotional discussion for me, given that I could connect with the gentleman in spite of the language barrier.
This home visit was a blunt eye-opener to the fact that many Jewish people, as well as Jewish communities around the world, are still in desperate need of economic and emotional support. In North America, we enjoy a comfortable and privileged life for the most part – we can practice our religion openly and there are many organizations that help those in need. Unfortunately, not all Jews around the world are as fortunate as we, and we must strive to do everything in our power to provide as much assistance as possible, alleviate as many misfortunes as we can, and connect to Jews to share and celebrate.
Indeed, one of my favorite activities was spending Shabbat with the youth group at SUIM. We facilitated team-building activities that enhanced the participants’ sense of Jewish identity and motivated them to become more engaged in the Jewish community. We also shared meaningful discussions about assimilation, tikkun olam, trips to Israel, and life in Argentina prior to the economic crisis. After teaching each other dance and sharing classical Argentinian food, I felt that we genuinely got to know the Argentine Jewish youth on a personal level. I was also inspired by how cohesive and united the Argentine youth was and I considered it my personal obligation to bring that unity back to Toronto’s Russian-Jewish community.
When we began discussing our group’s time at SUIM, I learned that the locals remembered a group of students from a previous JDC Entwine trip who volunteered with them five years ago. In fact, they were able to recall the first names of the volunteers! This small detail resonated with me as it illustrated the significance of our visit and work. The teens genuinely looked forward to meeting us. They appreciated our time and efforts and remembered us many years later.
Our work at that community center went beyond painting walls and teaching each other dance moves – it was about connecting Jewish people from different countries, showing each other that we are not alone and that we all share a unique identity that brings us together.
From Mar Del Plata we traveled more than 200 miles north to our next destination, Buenos Aires, where the majority of Argentina’s 240,000 Jews reside. In the capital we participated in numerous cross-generational projects by volunteering at Baby Help – which provides day care and Jewish programming to poor Jewish families – and spent a day at the LeDor VaDor center, where we connected with elderly community members who immigrated to Argentina from the former Soviet Union (FSU).
Being able to speak Russian to the elderly was our immediate common denominator. Next we discussed our grandparents who were born in the same countries as the seniors. We talked about the war, about Israel and about Jewish life in Argentina. Based on their enthusiasm and eagerness to share their life stories with us, it was clear that they were delighted to speak to us. Once again, we found the conversations to be meaningful, emotional, and focused on Judaism.
In addition, we visited Moishe House and Hillel, two organizations responsible for connecting young 20-something Jewish adults and creating a sense of Jewish identity. I found it surprising and quite heartwarming to see a Moishe House and a Hillel building outside of North America.
For me, this first visit to Argentina provided a more globalized approach to my Jewish identity. There I was, an Israeli-Canadian Jew, whose parents immigrated from the FSU, sitting at a Moishe House in Buenos Aires singing Hallelujah with a group of Argentine Jewish students. This was the epitome of a global Jewish identity and brought home for me the idea that all Jews are connected.
And I believe I felt that connection even more acutely because of my fellow participants, inspirational people who reminded me of the power of being surrounded by Russian speakers. We share similar mentalities, jokes, and made references that we could easily understand. More than that, we engaged in countless stimulating conversations ranging from literature to classical music, Soviet history to Middle East politics. We started our days together at 7 a.m. to catch the sunrise on the beach and finished our days together late at night on the hotel’s rooftop looking at the constellations.
I drew inspiration from those moments and from the time spent with my fellow Russian speakers. They have made me more determined to seek out and make stronger connections with Jewish people in my life, to join Moishe House, to go to Hillel, and ultimately to remain engaged in the future of my people.
The stars aligned in Argentina and opened our eyes to a Jewish world many of us never knew about before. Our warm interactions with local Jews emphasized that undeniable fact that we share more than history, values and upbringing. We are part of one global Jewish community, a concept to be cherished and embraced and passed on from one generation to the next.
Dalia Amrom was born in Israel and currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She recently graduated York University with a degree in Kinesiology and Health Sciences and is an active leader in Jewish Immigrant Aid Services in Toronto as well as the Jewish Health Network.