Latest update: June 3rd, 2013
“Et achai anochi mevakeish” (“I seek my brethren”) was the theme of our whirlwind four-day visit to Buenos Aires in June. There are about 250,000 Jews in that country — one of the largest Jewish communities after the United States and Israel — almost all of them concentrated in Buenos Aires.
Our group was on a mission of the Orthodox Union headed by Stephen J. Savitsky, the organization’s national president. We were pleased to be part of a delegation that consisted of Rabbi Steven Burg, national director of OU Program Development and international director of NCSY; Gerald Schreck of Brooklyn and Roy Spiewak of Teaneck, New Jersey, national vice presidents; and Stanley Weinstein of Miami Beach, senior vice president.
Our primary goal was to evaluate the work of NCSY, the OU’s celebrated youth program, in Buenos Aires. A branch of NCSY had been established in Chile a number of years ago in order to combat the ravaging intermarriage rate, and now a new chapter was set to open in Argentina. We went there to evaluate its work and to be present at its grand opening.
Our visit made it clear to us that that the work of NCSY is truly without equal as a powerful instrument of saving Jews for Judaism. We learned that NCSY is one of the most important priorities of the Orthodox Union and agreed that strenuous efforts must be undertaken to establish new chapters wherever possible.
On the Saturday evening before we left Buenos Aires, approximately 350 teens came together in a rented facility for a social evening of pizza, soda, fun and mussar. These young people were without any religious affiliation but they knew a d’var Torah would be part of the evening program and were prepared to accept the message together with the pizza and soda that was to follow.
It was thanks to remarkable outreach and kiruv efforts that these youngsters were enticed to become involved with NCSY. The two young NCSY leaders, Rabbi Marcelo Krawiec, a charismatic young man who has been doing outstanding work in Argentina, and Rabbi Shimon Vinger, director and founder of NCSY South America, were joined by Mexican-born Rabbi Israel Lashak, based in Dallas, who for the last 16 years has led every effort to increase NCSY programming south of the border.
The rabbis had these youngsters mesmerized with inspiring stories of maasim tovim incumbent on all Jews to practice. There was also a short talk on the Holocaust, emphasizing the Kiddush Hashem of the martyrs.
It was hardly the fare for a Saturday night date activity. The leaders pulled no punches. They made it clear that they were talking about Jewish values and the importance of identification with our heritage. The obvious message delivered was clear: The young people were Jews and had an obligation to respect their heritage, become acquainted with its value system, and continue to learn about it.
Unfortunately, and much to our sorrow, the majority of the Jewish population is far from observant, with a whopping 75 percent intermarriage rate. The Buenos Aires chapter of NCSY is, however, rooted in a flourishing shomrei mitzvot community. We visited a magnificent school named Toratainu with 500 students, K-12, and a program called Morasha with an enrollment of one thousand college students paid to study Torah, a record probably unexcelled in any American institution. We also had the pleasure of visiting AMIA, the Asociación Mutual Israelite Argentina, dedicated to developing the well-being of Jewish life in Argentina.
During our visit we also had a chance to meet with representatives of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) who are doing a remarkable job in bolstering the Jewish community and aiding its recovery from the economic shock Argentina suffered several years ago.
We also visited an ORT high school with more than 4,000 thousand students. The administrators told us they were interested in making their students aware of their Jewish background and heritage. This is a very interesting opportunity for us as we have already begun an outreach program with the encouragement of the school.
Most impressive were the majestic and beautiful synagogues we saw and worshipped in. Since the community is primarily Sephardic, most of the schools and synagogues are conducted in the Sephardic tradition. The one Ashkenazi synagogue we visited was equally impressive.
We were honored with aliyot to the Torah on Shabbat in the Sephardic shul in which we davened. During the service, we could not help but reflect that “am yisrael chad hu,” and that wherever we may be, in whatever environment and in whatever corner of the world we may find ourselves, das pintele Yid always rises to the surface. It bonds us with our fellow Jews and envelops us with its warmth.
On Friday evening we davened in a shul where an entire section of the sanctuary was occupied by boys between the ages of six and nine. They joined in the service with true devotion, following along as best they could the prayers of their older friends. Their sweet voices filled the synagogue and gave us a moving spiritual and emotional experience.
The trip was highlighted by the meetings we had with Rabbi Avraham Serruya, spiritual leader of the Sukkat David congregation and yeshiva; Rabbi Yitzchak Sacca, who has two large synagogues, a kollel and a university outreach program; Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi who runs a beautiful school, yeshiva, kollel, various outreach programs, and is also responsible for overseeing the majority of kosher food in Argentina; and Rabbi Yosef Chehebar, the Sephardic chief rabbi.
Notwithstanding the relative brevity of our trip, we were able to make a couple of substantial observations. First, the Orthodox community of Buenos Aires is, on the whole, a wholesome and vibrant one. Second, NCSY serves as a major force in helping preserve Jewish tradition and values among the teenage and young adult population.
We know the Orthodox Union will do everything possible to expand NCSY and bring it to as many communities as possible, in both North and South America. We look forward to encouraging this vital effort.
About the Author: Susan Alter Klaperman is a former New York City councilwoman. Her husband, Rabbi Dr. Gilbert Klaperman, is a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Sholom in Lawrence, New York.
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