Uruguay’s Thriving Jewish Community

Martín Francisco Saps’ article on “Uruguay’s Dwindling Jewish Community” in Haaretz English Edition on May 16th can be seen as an ambitious, comprehensive view into this collective; but once read, it raises many unavoidable issues which must be addressed. No matter how small and “dwindling”, the Jewish community in Uruguay is not only not fading, but far from losing its “raison d’être”. (Full disclosure: this writer has been a very much involved, active player in the Jewish community in Uruguay for almost twenty years, serving as President of the Masorti Congregation NCI, Vice-President of the largest Jewish school, the “Integral”, and a writer and thinker on Jewish issues through his site/blog www.tumeser.com for ten years now).

This being said, let’s get down to the tone and issues of Saps’ article. One cannot but recognize certain contempt with the subject in consideration; furthermore, through a very subtle, chosen wording, an undeniable tone of irony and scepticism prevails. One would like to know what the purpose of the article was in the first place, but it’s not really relevant to our point: that the scarce ten thousand Jews who live in Uruguay (according to Saps’ source, whatever it is) care deeply for their Judaism and their fate. Because no matter how many Jews are left, it is always the remaining ones who matter when we talk about a certain community. The others have moved on.

The use of the word “anomaly” as the first word of the article doesn’t precisely honour Uruguay; many Uruguayans would feel hurt by such a definition. It is true that Uruguay has a long standing and proud tradition of separation between State and Church, but that doesn’t mean that Uruguayans are not religious or believers in some way or another. One of the problems of Saps’ article is that it mixes historic times at will: Uruguay in the 1950s is not Uruguay in 2010s. The issues regarding religion and its related topics are very much part of the public discussion today. But mostly, religion and belief is a private matter. Uruguayans might not be Church goers, but they will mostly call themselves Christians, Catholics, Umbandist, or some other denomination. Secularism is not a “national religion” but a national political, ideological trait. Neither is soccer a religion; it is a national social and identity bonding phenomena.

As for the issue of size: yes, in the 1950s we were about fifty thousand Jews, and in the sixties around forty thousand. But we’re not ten thousand today: these are only the “registered” Jews, those who attend some kind of Jewish institution at some point of their life. It’s not that we double that number, but we certainly are above it. In almost six decades we’ve reduced our number to a fourth of what it was at its peak. The decrease has been gradual all those years; Saps somehow hints at the process, but at the same time the article’s tone gives the impression of a certain urgency and unawareness. It’s not so: the Jews in Uruguay know their situation and deal with it to the best of their possibilities and resources. They know because most families have next of kin either in Israel or somewhere else.

The historic background included in the article seems irrelevant for the situation today. The seven synagogues in the Goes neighbourhood and the alleged thirty Jewish schools in Uruguay are data of the past. Recent history should deal, for instance, with the absorption of one Jewish school by another one due to issues of scale and economics, disregarding deep and significant cultural differences. Reality tends to prevail over ideologies. The situation today is one smaller Jewish National Religious school and one larger, traditional, Jewish school with no religious affiliation. As for Youth Groups (Tnuot Noar), there are two main ones: Macabi, mentioned by Saps, and Chazit Hanoar, not mentioned by Saps. Then there are four smaller ones: Betar, Dror, Hanoar, and Hashomer. A reasonable estimate would be that every Saturday afternoon all of these can bring together no less than a thousand children and youngsters. Not bad for a community of only ten thousand…

Almost every Jew in Uruguay is traditionally a Zionist. But the attitude towards Israel is slowly changing, as it is all around the world, and very much so in the U.S.A., because of the recent governments and policies of Israel. But yes, as Saps rightly points, Zionism has been, so far, the main source of Jewish identity for Uruguayan Jews.  Not because they see others embark on Alyia, but because this is taught (not “inculcated”) both in formal and informal Jewish education. The peak of this process is the year spent in Israel by almost all who graduate from High School at 18. It has become a rite of passage much as the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, although the implications are more serious.

What is not realistic is to suggest that the tug of war in the Jewish community is between assimilation and Alyia: if you don’t make Alyia, you’re lost as a Jew. The Jewish community in Uruguay is a demonstration that this is not so easily so. For one thing, there’s Alyia to Israel and there’s emigration to the U.S.A. as well as other countries (Panama, Argentina, now Chile). The U.S.A. is as much a dream for Uruguayan Jews as Israel used to be. It is not a Jewish problem, it is a Uruguayan problem: the country is too small, too dependent on its neighbours Brazil and Argentina and global economy in general. If you want to use the word “anomaly”, that’s the anomaly of Uruguay: its location, size, and population. Emigration has been an issue for Uruguay since the sixties. It’s a trait of many small countries; including Israel.

But the Jews who remain in Uruguay (or come back to Uruguay after Alyia or some years abroad, mostly to raise families near their family of origin) are very active Jews. If I had to choose one trait and strength of our community, I’d undoubtly choose “pluralism”. In opposition to what Bergstein is quoted as saying, we don’t lack diversity; in fact, I believe the ratio “Jewish population over diversity” is too high. We cannot hold, finance, and grow, so many options and institutions. Sadly, these are remains of the past (the good ol’ times of the 50s & 60s) when we were classified by origin mostly, by religious practice at the same time, and by Zionist parties too. Quite a mix! Not anymore: we’re fewer, but we’re still diverse.

Saps’ article fails to name explicitly and otherwise some of the present time, main Jewish institutions that deal with Jewish life in Uruguay: the two schools, Integral and Yavne; the three remaining Communities (of origin), the NCI (Germans and Austrians), the Kehila (Polish and Russian and now Hungarian), and the Sepharadim; the Tzedaka Foundation (since 2003); the Elder People’s Home (Hogar Israelita); the Bnai Brit; Yavne as a religious congregation; Chabad; the Keren Kayemet; the Keren Hayesod; the Centre for the Holocaust Remembrance; the six Tnuot Noar; the Comité Central Israelita (umbrella organization that deals with local government and press); the Cátedra de Judaísmo at the Jesuit Catholic University; and other  organizations such as WIZO etc. No lack of Jewish institutions in Uruguay. What I like to call “the Jewish State” in Uruguay is hard to sustain.

In spite of “dwindling”, the NCI, the only Masorti and non-orthodox institution in Uruguay, managed to build a JCC, including a large synagogue and a mikve, between 2006 and 2009 funded only by members of the whole Jewish community. This building now holds not only NCI but also Bnai Brit, Itus, and many of the meetings of other Jewish organizations; as well as progressive religious services, cultural and educational activities, many Rikudim groups, Tnuot festivals, etc. Its location and policy of open-doors have allowed for this to happen. On another track, the Tzedaka Foundation as well as the Hogar Israelita have taken over some of the challenges of the economic crisis of 2001-2 in the area; based on the work done previously by the four original communities, the Jews of Uruguay have stood-up to the challenge. Yes, all the ten thousand of them.

So, what are the true challenges of the Jews of Uruguay? Quoting Saps, is it “to become more in touch with itself or more open”? What is the true dichotomy here? Are these options excluding one of the other? As a liberal, progressive Jew I believe they are not. I do believe strongly that Jews should “become more in touch with” themselves because there lays the strength of Judaism: not in the belief in God or Torah or the Rabbis or even in a flawless State of Israel, but in the belief and understanding of the core values and aspirations that our “tradition” has to offer. On the other hand, I do believe Jews must be more open to their surroundings: first and foremost, among themselves; and second, but not the least important, towards the others. We’re not Jews to please and comply with non-Jews, but to add value to society. Similarly, we’re not Jews to be our “brother’s keeper” but rather to simply be a brother: to dissent, share, and rejoice in that which makes us all Jews: the stories, the words, the rites we’ve kept over the centuries, over migrations, and still hold us together.

On a more practical note, we, the Jews in Uruguay, should keep working at making our institutions more efficient, our economic and human resources more accessible, our projects more educational than political. We should discuss and agree upon where to locate resources; how to deal with a more complex Israeli political system; how to preserve our Judaism in spite of the directions that come from the Rabinate of Israel; how to welcome the other into our collective, or simply, how to walk side by side with the other in a more fragmented society.

I am pleased that Haaretz chose to publish an article on such a “dwindling” Jewish community; perhaps it did so precisely because of the “dwindling”… Still we’re far away from extinction, although I cannot argue it might come, some day. In the meantime, we shall overcome. As many Jewish communities have done in less privileged areas, we must do our homework, shrink (as in “tzimtzum”) our structure, strengthen our values and learning, and keep the options open.

Paraphrasing the famous 1975 movie, “the Jewish Community in Uruguay is (not) dead and living in… Uruguay”.

About the Author
Sixty-one ,married, a son and a daughter. Very closely related to Israel, residing in Uruguay. Businessman. Lay leader for the Masorti congregation in Montevideo. Served as President of the Board. Vice President of the Board of the Jewish school. Twenty years involvement in community affairs. Attended the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem seven times for their CLP programs. Writer & lecturer.