Global Jewish Reflections | A Rich Tapestry: Exploring Jewish Argentina with JDC Entwine
Rabbi Alex Braver reflects on his JDC Entwine trip to Jewish Argentina and what makes this community so strong and vibrant.
By Rabbi Alex Braver - Associate Rabbi; Congregation Tifereth Israel, Columbus, Ohio | December 16, 2022
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
Between tango lessons with Hillel of Buenos Aires, wine tasting with Argentinian young Jewish professionals, and a swim at the Hacoaj Jewish community center’s outdoor pool (in the 98-degree December of the Southern Hemisphere), I — along with about two dozen or so other Jews in our 20s and 30s from across the Midwest — was treated to the experience of a lifetime: getting to explore the rich, vibrant, complex story of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world outside the U.S. and Israel.
It was all thanks to JDC Entwine, the young adult engagement platform of the leading global Jewish humanitarian organization (my first trip with this 108-year-old NGO, where my husband has worked for almost a decade!). For years, I’d heard stories about JDC’s work around the world, saving Jewish lives and building Jewish life; this would be my first time seeing it firsthand.
Our time in Argentina wasn’t just dancing and summer vacation, though — our group was invited to see the inner workings of a dynamic community that most American Jews rarely consider. In the early 2000s, when Argentina was rocked by a devastating economic crisis, JDC was there to support Jews in need and to help Jewish institutions weather the storm. Two decades later, it was plain to see that the investment had paid off.
We ate with seniors (and I got to practice both my Spanish and my Hebrew!) at Ledor Vador, where elderly Jews attend programs and live in dignity, receiving medical care and rehabilitation services; we joined a dance class (OK, there was a lot of dancing on this trip) with members of the Jewish community; we joined an interfaith youth orchestra, where the teens taught each of us how to play a few notes on their respective instruments (I can now play two notes on an upright bass!); we joined a triple (!!!) b’not mitzvah service beginning Shabbat evening in a packed synagogue, followed by dinner with the rabbi and hazzan. We got to see, in so many ways, how this community half a world away — in partnership with JDC — has built itself up on its Jewish values.
Through it all, I was moved both by the incredible depth and breadth of what the Jewish community of Buenos Aires has built over the 160 years of its existence, as well as by the way that our own cohort of Midwesterners were awakened to a much broader, richer tapestry of Jewish possibility — both in the world and in our own lives. Judaism and Jewish life exists in places and ways you may never have considered, so what’s to say you can’t make your own unique Jewish story, too? We have a role to play in this story as American Jews, too — as partners and as witnesses, with things both to teach and to learn. JDC helps us play that role, bringing Jews around the world together as part of a diverse global community.
What hit home most deeply, though, was our visit to AMIA (the organizing agency for the Jewish community in Argentina), which suffered a terrorist attack in 1994 that killed 85 and injured over 300 Jews and non-Jews alike. On the first floor of the new AMIA building, each wall is covered with beautiful black-and-white portraits of victims, survivors, and bereaved family members. One shows a young Mijal Tenenbaum, holding a Hebrew book from her father Javier’s library. He was killed in the bombing at age 30; she was three months old when he died.
“The 18th of July didn’t just take my father’s life. It took the possibility that we might know each other,” she is quoted beneath her photograph. “Finding this book is me showing that I am going to spend my life discovering him — putting puzzle pieces together to try to imagine him as best I can.” Now, she is nearly the age her father was when he was killed.
In the courtyard stood another memorial — a plaque of a woman, arms overhead forming a tree, or a menorah, a gaping hole where her womb once was — a tribute to the “desaparecidos,” over 30,000 mainly young people “disappeared” by the military dictatorship from 1976-1983, a significant portion of whom were young Jews. The next evening (and almost four decades later), we would go out for karaoke with young Argentinian Jews living proud, meaningful, publicly Jewish lives.
In a community that has seen such darkness, the light remains as strong as ever.
From the depths of unspeakable tragedy, the community has committed to both increasing its security measures (still very present almost 30 years later) and to increasing its joy, public visibility, and vibrancy. There are still challenges in Argentina, from corruption to runaway inflation and economic stagnation — but in a community that has seen such darkness, the light remains as strong as ever.
Wherever we went, saying we were from “the Joint” brought smiles and nods, opening up doors for us to be welcomed into a unique and resilient community. As we prepare to light our Chanukah candles, there’s no stronger lesson than that.
Alex Braver is the associate rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, where he lives with his husband Alex Weisler, their son Ezra, and their dog Benjy.