Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Jews of Argentina: Templo Libertad, Buenos Aires

Photo by Active Steve
It’s often been said that if you want to understand the Jewish spirit, look to Israel. But it seems to me, that if you want to understand the history of global Jewish migration, and the heart that drives it, it’s Argentina that holds those secrets.

Just off one of Buenos Aires busier streets, flanked by shaded trees and a carefully obscured Jewish museum stands the city’s first synagogue. Its tall stone walls and impressive front speak of auspicious years when immigrants from all over the world flooded into Argentina’s burgeoning streets.

In fact, the Congregación Israelita de la Republica Argentina, or Templo Libertad (Temple Freedom – which gets its name from the street it is on, Calle Libertad) as the synagogue is more affectionately called by its members, began long before most of those stone walls were constructed, in a time when the permanence of a synagogue, like the assurance of a minyan of worshipers was still a hopeful goal.

“The history of Argentinean Jewry begins with a legend,” notes the website for Templo Libertad, “the story tells that by the end of 1862, on the occasion of the High Holidays, the first minyan in Buenos Aires was gathered.”

To this day, all of the names of the synagogue’s first minyan are shrouded in mystery. Yet their actions, however idealistic and bold, set the groundwork for a community that would eventually reach into the hundreds of thousands.

Palacio Miró, demolished 1927
In 1876, the government of Argentina granted permission for Jewish rabbinate to practice in Argentina. According to the author of the website Infinita Buenos Ayres however, the location of Buenos Aires’ first shul was yet to be decided. Its founding rabbi, Joseph Henry, had bought rural property in Junín (162 miles/260 km  northwest of Buenos Aires), where he had hoped with the help of the new congregation to establish the area’s first synagogue.

“But the collected funds were not enough,” says the website’s author, Victoria, “and they decided to sell the property and purchase this site, which in those days was located across from the Palacio Miró.” The foundation stone was placed in 1897, and Buenos Aires first synagogue was born.

Buenos Aires in the 1920s, looking toward Templo Libertad
Soon it became too small for the city’s growing Jewish community. El Once neighborhood, near where the synagogue resided, had become the bustling center of Jewish life in Buenos Aires. Immigrants from all over Europe had settled on its streets, bringing with them the Germanic traditions of an old but prosperous Jewish culture.  The stature of Buenos Aires’ first small synagogue was significant.

“That’s why (it was) named Congregación Israelita de la Republica Argentina (The Israelite Congregation of the Argentine Republic), says Rabbi Daniel Kripper, who recently served as an interim rabbi at Templo Libertad and is now the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel, Aruba. “At one time, the most important people of the (Argentinean Jewish community) used to belong to that temple.”

Realizing the community would need a larger synagogue, the members began to plan for its expansion. They turned toward the images of their homelands: the influences of Romantic and Byzantine architecture that at one time flourished throughout Europe. They hired the best architects for the task and seemingly spared no expense. The old synagogue was reconstructed with an eye toward the grandeur of its surroundings, the Miró Palace, across from the temple, and the world renowned Colón Theatre, just down the street.

Photo by Robert Cutts
The imagery and symbolism they chose for the entrance of the grand synagogue was no less bold. The prominent Magen David above its doors and the images of the Ten Commandments make it clear that the Jews who first arrived to Argentina were confident that Buenos Aires would, as the name of the street and the synagogue suggested, provide the freedom to live their lives as observant Jews.

Today, approximately 80 percent of Argentina’s Jewish residents are Ashkenazi - an unusual characteristic in Latin America, where many communities have retained the Sephardic customs of their family’s Spanish ancestry. But the Buenos Aires’ Jewish community has also experienced dramatic changes over the years.

As time went on, El Once’s predominantly Orthodox neighborhood began to shrink. Families left the neighborhood – and the shul – for other regions of Buenos Aires. New communities in areas like Belgrano and Palermo, north of the temple, began to spring up.

“(Thousands) and thousands of Jews moved to those areas and established their houses there, their new synagogues and Jewish life, both Conservative and Orthodox,” Kripper says. “It was, I would say, a revival of Jewish life, particularly among young people.”

The Orthodox traditions fell away – temporarily.

Nearby Buenos Aires - Today - Stanley Wood
“In my time, let’s say 30 or 40 years ago, this community was totally secularized. Religion was very weak.”

But support for Israel, says Kripper, stayed strong, becoming a vital link to Jewish culture. A community that was once devoutly traditional and insular, gradually became “secular, Zionist oriented in terms of Jewish education, Jewish life, and very linked to the state Israel.”

In the last 30 or so years, however, Buenos Aires has gone through another change. The introduction of a Conservative seminary in 1962 helped to plant the seed for a religious revival – a revival that would eventually reach even as far as Buenos Aires’ grand synagogue Templo Libertad.

Today, Templo Libertad offers two different prayer times for two different memberships. During the week and on Shabbat, it offers a small traditional minyan in the chapel, patterned after the old Germanic service, what Kripper refers to as a more “solemn” service. In years past, says Kripper, the service was accompanied by a mix choir and was held in the main sanctuary. These days the accompaniment is smaller, although no less moving. The services are held in the chapel, and the music is sung by the chazzan (cantor), who is complemented by a keyboard. The services are led by Rabbi  Simon Moguilevsky, who has been leading services at Templo Libertad for the last 50 years.

“The traditional service … serves the needs and expectations of the older generations,” Kripper says, “the people who used to go to the main sanctuary, and were used to the big religious show by the cantors,” complete with an electric keyboard. “But their style of davening, of praying … is still along the lines of the old school of German Jewry.”

The temple’s main cathedral-style sanctuary is now home to a larger, more liberal service on Shabbat that Kripper says is led by graduates of Argentina’s Conservative seminary, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer, based in Buenos Aires. Its services meet the needs of Buenos Aires’ up and coming younger population, the products of the city’s newer outlying neighborhoods.

Commemorating the mourned* - Pablo D Flores
Life for Argentina’s Jewish community has not always been easy. But I wonder as I look at pictures of Buenos Aires’ grand temple rebuilt more than 80 years ago with its tall, sweeping arches and its boldly Jewish imagery, whether part of the secret to preserving one’s Jewish legacy lies in the faith in its continuum – and the refusal to be deterred by fear. Buenos Aires’ 19th century pioneers had every reason to lose hope and faith when they fled Europe because of antisemitism in the early 1800s, and very little reason to believe in the promises of a new nation recently freed from the Inquisition. But they built nonetheless.

And even during the community’s most cataclysmic changes, it never lost sight of its heritage or the value of believing in something larger than what it had left behind. Perhaps it is because of that overly optimistic Jewish value that even amid tragedies and continuing changes in how we define ourselves, our sense of Jewish identity never leaves.

Photo by Robert Cutts

* The banner commemorates those who were killed in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 attack on the Jewish Community Center, both in Buenos Aires. The banner signifies the 22 killed in the embassy bombing and 85 lost at the Jewish community center. The six million is a reference to those who are mourned from the Shoah (Holocaust). The photo was taken in Rosario, Argentina. 

Gratitude is expressed to Rabbi Daniel Kripper for his willingness to be interviewed for this series of posts on Argentina's Jewish Communities.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Women of the Wall and Diversity at the Kotel

Women's Section at Kotel - Photo by Silversteinb

For many Jews in the Western Hemisphere, the beginning of a new month on the Hebrew calendar occurs with little fanfare. We may learn of its passage at synagogue as we’re participating in Jewish prayers, or we may notice the incidental change of date at the top of our favorite Jewish newspaper. But for many North American Jews, the celebratory beginning of the Hebrew month has little effect on their daily rituals of work, family life, or how they spend our coveted hours of rest.

So it is often difficult to understand in these modern times, how the change of a single date could, with one chosen action, get someone arrested.

Photo by Michal Patelle
But every 30 days or so, at the beginning of the new moon, a group of women gather at the center of Jerusalem where Jewish faith and culture have intersected for thousands of years, and acknowledge the beginning of the new Hebrew month. As they arrive at their spot at the Kotel, the Western Wall, they pull out their sidurim, don their tallisim and with a little luck and a whole lot of guts, unveil their Torah scroll.
Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall

Their efforts to celebrate the beginning of the month with songs and prayers are usually concluded with arrests for contravening the stated minhag hamakom (the local customs determined to be relevant to davening at Kotel). It doesn’t matter that they are not within the bounds of an Orthodox synagogue and that they are not attempting to address an Orthodox congregation.

Photo by Michal Patelle
The right of these "Women of the Wall" to gather and to worship united as Jews at the Kotel is not allowed if it goes against minhag, which in short, does not include the practice of women being heard or visibly participating in Jewish prayer.

And rabbinical and legal limitations are not the only obstacles they face when they turn up. There are threats, condemnations and outward attacks from their critics.

There are attempted burnings of their materials by enraged bystanders (as occurred last week). And most recently, there are restrictions to their ability to perform Kaddish in public, one of the most sacred prayers of Judaism (although according to Cheryl Birkner Mack, a spokesperson for the group, it is not their custom to say the prayer at the Kotel at this time).

"Riot" - Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall
What lies at the center of all this controversy is not really an Israeli law, or a part of Jewish halacha, but the complex and confusing definition of customary traditions, of minhag hamokom. What makes up this concept of order, and how do we define it, particularly when it relates to a public landmark? What parameters, statistics, or historical relevance does one use for figuring out what is local custom?

Majority rule? In Jerusalem, or in Israel as a whole?

Affiliation and religious practice have always been difficult issues to quantify in Israel, particularly since Conservative and Reform Jews are generally not counted as such in Israeli census, and because of the historic debate over the appropriateness of taking an accurate census of the Jewish people. So there is a fair amount of variation in results depending on whose figures you use.

But according to a 2009 survey (page 30) published by the Israel Democracy Institute, only 7 percent of those surveyed throughout Israel identified themselves as Haredi (up from 5 percent in 1999). The number who claimed to be Orthodox were barely more than twice that – 15 percent (11 percent in 1991). Jews who defined themselves as “traditional” numbered more than twice the Orthodox (32 percent/33 respectively). For the purpose of the IDI survey, the religious affiliations of those who maintained “traditional” customs were not defined.

Photo by Naamanus
The greatest percentage came from those who claimed to be secular. A whopping 46/43 percent identified themselves as secular but “not anti-religious.” The smallest group said that they were secular and “anti-religious” (6/3).

Haredi affiliation is substantially greater inside Jerusalem than in Israel as a whole. According to the City of Jerusalem’s 2009 figure, 21.3 percent, or 165,000 of the total municipal population (772,982) identified themselves as Haredi, while 497,036 identified themselves as Jewish in general. The city points out in footnote that the accepted statistic that is generally applied to Haredi residents within the city of Jerusalem is 30 percent.

But try as they might, statistics often don’t tell the whole story about a people, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Israel’s complex understanding of minhag. So what about history? Can Jerusalem’s significant Jewish history help define what should be considered local custom?

Several writers have posed this question, including Bonna Devora Haberman, one of the group's organizers following its start in 1988. Tradition at the Kotel, Dr. Haberman says in her book, Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism, isn’t as much a custom of place, than a coexistence of conventions:

Photo by Leif Knutsen
“The practices at the Western Wall reflect the diversity of Israeli society; there is no liturgy common to all Jews, no fixed protocol. At any moment on the men’s side of the partition at the Western Wall, there are coexisting assemblies of prayer communities, each following its particular customs.”

The website and nonprofit group, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) echoes this statement in its introductory description, The History of Jewish Diversity.

“Today, Israel is one of the most racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse countries in the world, with immigrants from over 70 countries.” The author goes further to point out that “the story of the Jewish people is filled with interracial and intercultural mixing.”
Photo courtesy of Israel Defense Forces

So how can there be one definitive minhag at Israel’s holiest prayer site?

Haberman notes that “Until Israeli sovereignty, there had been no separation between men and women at the Western Wall.” She goes on to explain the events that unfolded in 1968, a year after the Kotel had been reclaimed by Israeli forces, that brought about the changes to minhag at the Western Wall.

Photo by Saga Olsén
It did not herald a complete separation of men and women at the Wall until much later. I remember standing amid both men and women near the center of the wall during several visits in 1974. Some of those around me had came to daven. Others had come to photograph. Many others had come to touch the wall, and still others to add their written prayers to the Kotel. While there was a mechitza that cordoned off a small part of the wall (which during one visit was in the center, between two open areas, not at the north end), there were no stringent prohibitions against men and women gathering together, and no restrictions against women being at the Kotel while men were davening.

So how can there be a minhag that supposedly defines historical practice at the Kotel?

Art work by Ephraim Moses Lilian
Compromise and the acceptance of cultural diversity have always been a part of Jewish ethos. The Talmud exemplifies this attitude, as does the Shulchan; their treatises on Jewish customs are the product of thousands of years of debate and discussion amongst scholars living in distinct communities. Many times the end product resulted in compromise between diverse perspectives; other times the outcome was the inevitable recognition that there is more than one way to address an issue (as the Shulchan Aruch demonstrates with its acceptance of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi customs).

The very fact that minhag and halacha can coexist in Jewish thought and practice suggests that diversity has a place in Jewish tradition, as does compromise.

Photo by Beggs
A ten minute walk from the Kotel takes one to another historic landmark, where the passage of time seems just as irrelevant to the traditions and customs of the day. But here, the preservation of spiritual traditions isn’t defined by a single culture, but by a egalitarian consensus between five distinct Christian denominations that has been in effect for more than a thousand years. At least three different Easter services are held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as each denomination takes their rightful turn at the altar to conduct their Palm Sunday service. The use of Jerusalem’s holiest Christian landmark is a shared compromise with a finely balanced timetable that allows all denominations to observe their holiest day in their own way.

But realistically, it will likely take many years before such a concession could become part of the minhag hamakom at the Kotel. And while the “new” women’s section that has been proposed with the help of Natan Sharansky may offer an option, one must ask whether this idea - which will take years to implement - is a compromise for both sides or a palliative measure that excuses one from recognizing the rights and human needs of another.

As Daniel Atwood, a writer for Yeshiva University’s publication The Commentator expressed in his March 10, 2013 editorial, “Ironically, it is baseless hatred of other Jews that the Gemara faults as being the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple,” which the writer points out once stood footsteps from the portion of the Kotel that remains today. “Hopefully a solution will come about that recognizes the diversity of Jews who pray at the Kotel,” and, he points out, without making those who are more conservative in their beliefs feel uneasy in their place of worship.

“Hopefully each side will be willing to accept such a compromise.”

Update: On April 25, 2013 the courts ruled in favor of the Women of the Wall's right to pray at the Kotel, by supporting the Magistrate's Court decision of Judge Sharon Lary-Bavly that the five women who were arrested on April 11, 2013 for praying out loud and for wearing prayer shawls should not have been detained, and that they had not disturbed public order. Judge Moshe Sobel, who had reviewed the case in response to a police appeal, also found that:
  • the earlier recommendation that the Women of the Wall pray at the Robinson's Arch did not mean they could not pray in the women's section of the Kotel;
  • their choice to pray in the women's section does not imply they have committed a criminal act;
  • they are not violating a law concerning "minhag hamakom (local customs). "(Legal) proceedings of Women of the Wall establish that the “local custom” is to be interpreted with National and pluralistic implications, not necessarily Orthodox Jewish customs (per Women of the Wall press release);
  • if they were to be found disturbing public order it doesn't mean they endangered public peace.
The police's appeal to have the five women restricted in their access to the Kotel or a possible exile to the Robinson's Arch was therefore rejected by the courts.
Please see next week's posting (May 5) for follow-up information on the Women of the Wall.