Spanish-speaking Jews are much in the news lately with the appointment of the first Latin American pope, Pope Francis from Argentina. His best friend, Rabbi Avraham Skorka, a Masorti Rabbi and friend of mine, is an Argentinian rabbi who thinks that the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been a good friend to the Jews of Argentina and will continue to be a good friend to the Jews of the world.
The second comment you might hear is “There are Jews in Argentina?” The truth is there are approximately 180,000 Jews (according to a 2010 census) who live there, and Argentina’s past has included Jewish gaucho cowboys, Jewish agriculturalists and a notorious Jewish crime syndicate. There is a town in the interior of Argentina named Moisesville which hosts a Jewish museum that tells the story of the Jews who settled there to work the land with the support of the German-Jewish Baron Maurice von Hirsch. The only kosher McDonalds outside of Israel is in Buenos Aires and the city is full of kosher restaurants offering Argentinian beef.
After the bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina in 1994 and the collapse of the economy starting in 1999, many Jews made aliyah to Israel along with more than half the Jewish population of neighboring Uruguay (yes, there are Jews there too).
Now you know a bit about the Jews in South America, specifically in Argentina. But did you know that the largest denomination of Jews in Argentina is Masorti/Conservative Jews? There are over 30 Masorti kehillot (synagogues) there with active youth programs, strong ties to Israel and a thriving communal life. The Rabbinical school there, named after its founder, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, has ordained rabbis who work all over Latin America, Israel, Europe and in the United States. One of its graduates, Rabbi Dr. Adolfo Roitman, curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, hosted President Obama at the Shrine of the Book housed in the Israel Museum. He is an expert on the history of Second Temple Jewry. It also houses a school for cantors and for ongoing research and training in Jewish education. The Seminario Rabinico is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding in Latin America and this summer we will have a large conference bringing together 500 youth from all over South America and adult leaders in the Masorti/Conservative movement.
The first group of Jews who arrived in Argentina arrived as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. Jews who lived in the area of modern day Portugal were also persecuted heavily during the Inquisition – some stayed and converted but many left to other parts of Europe after the Expulsion in 1497. During and after World War II, Jews fled to Portugal to escape the Holocaust or landed there after the war to try and rebuild their lives. The Jewish population of Portugal remains small – between 5,000 and 8,000.
Many of these Jews are B’nai Anusim, descendants of Jewish families that were forced to convert as long ago as the Inquisition. For many years, these Jews were referred to as Marranos, which is a derogatory term used to identify both Jews and Muslims during the inquisition. The term means literally pig or dirty and backhandedly refers to the prohibition in both Judaism and Islam against eating pork.
In 2005, a group of B’nai Anusim contacted us at Masorti Olami for help in pursuing their desire to undergo halachic conversion back to Judaism. In September 2005, Rabbi Jules and Navah Harlow travelled from New York to Lisbon where they found a remarkable group of individuals bound together by a passion to recapture their lost heritage.
Through the magic of the internet and through dozens of visits since 2005, the Harlows have taught, mentored and helped the B’nei Anusum of Lisbon to not only regain their heritage but to establish a community comprised of Jews from varied backgrounds, with regular activities and services.
In a few weeks, on the 24th of April, an historic event will take place. The Masorti Europe Bet Din, or religious court, comprised of Rabbi Chaim Weiner the Av Beit Din in London, Rabbi Reuven Hammer, the Av Beit Din emeritus of Masorti Israel in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Jules Harlow, liturgist and Founding Editor of The Rabbinical Assembly, will meet in Lisbon to restore the halachic status of several of the people seeking to reconnect to their Jewish faith, their family history and the people of Israel.
As we approach the Zionist holidays and remembrance days this coming month, we must remember that one of the main goals of Zionism was to unite the Jewish people and to take care of them in an organized fashion wherever they may live. As a Zionist living in Israel, I see great Godly importance for the fact that Jews are situated everywhere around this globe. World Jewry and Diaspora Jewry do not contradict the Zionist dream, on the contrary, it only complements and enhances it.