|Photo by Active Steve|
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.
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|
“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|
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|
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|
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.
“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|
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.