View of Jewish Life in Argentina: A Secular Perspective

by Barbara Reich

A few days ago I found myself at the Jewish wedding ceremony of friends of my fiance. I did not know them well, but I knew they were a young couple in their 30s, upper-middle class residents of Buenos Aires City who are respectful of Jewish traditions. Great was my surprise when I found out that their wedding ceremony would take place in one of the Chabad Lubavitch synagogues in the Argentinian capital. As a secular Jew and one who is quite critical of anything that smacks of an organizational or institutional feel, my expectations regarding my emotional reaction and identification with what would happen that Sunday morning were relatively low.

To date, the phenomenon of young Jews connection to Jewish communal institutions in Buenos Aires can be best described as gradual abandonment, particularly for those who grew up within the framework of these institutions, or alternatively, of a growing indifference. Some of them, only some, will return or initiate a connection to organized Jewish life during their adult life, once they are married with children of their own.

Back to the wedding and my low expectations of any kind of emotional reaction once I would find myself at the synagogue belonging to the most visible Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Argentina. My existential questions ranged from the most basic to the most profound. Should I cover my arms? Can I sit with my boyfriend? Will I understand something of what is happening if the whole ritual is in Hebrew? What place will the bride have in this ritual and in their future life together?

I must admit that almost nothing of what I expected actually happened. Sitting next to my boyfriend I forgot the passage of time. I sang, was moved and even thought of my future with him, as I watched the couple going through their marriage ceremony. The rabbi was a young teacher of the groom. He knew both the bride and the groom and the affection among all three was evident. The joy of the master of ceremonies, his charisma, and the inclusion of all those present, male and female, at a ceremony in both languages (Hebrew and Spanish), the explanation of each of the rituals as the wedding went on, made the time fly and I found myself emotionally reacting with a “Mazel Tov!” felt in a way I have seldom experienced.

The speed and the intelligence with which the Chabad Lubavitch reacted to the phenomenon we all experienced in the Argentina in 2000 during an economic and social crisis that has had none like it over the last decades of the 20th century in our country, should be analyzed by the rest of the representative institutions of our community. They knew how to assess the environment, reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses, redefine strategies, implement them, evaluate them constantly, and achieve their objectives in a very difficult decade for all citizens of our country. The same young 20-something who were indifferent to the institutions of the community are today part of a Jewish framework from which each takes what he decides, wants or needs, which suggests a different model of community participation and challenges the concept of “belonging” as far as traditional institutionalization is concerned.

It is a new management model built in response to a different reality and one in which the established secular institutions in Argentina would be smart to adopt should they want to regain the aliented Jews who in recent years have felt excluded by the larger community.

Barbara Reich is a 31-year-old secular Jew who has been an integral part of one of the biggest JCC’s in Buenos Aires for many years. Until 2005, she worked for a variety of Jewish organizations in the area of education and management. She spent a year in Israel and when she returned to Buenos Aires, earned a Master’s degree in human rights. Currently, Barbara works for the municipality of Buenos Aires as the district coordinator of a pilot program that focuses on strengthening public primary schools.