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.

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