America and Israel loom large in the contemporary Jewish world. Conversations about global Judaism tend to focus on one or the other, or the connection between the two, but rarely touch on the other thriving, vibrant Jewish communities around the globe. If the Northeast Corridor is modern day Babylon, and Jerusalem is, well, modern day Jerusalem, what of the rest of the Jewish world? What of the Jews of my hometown Tacoma, WA, or the Jews of Wellington, New Zealand? Thanks to a generous program put together by the Joint Distribution Committee, this past week I was gifted the experience, along with nineteen other HUC-JIR students, to get an inside look at one of these far flung but vibrant Jewish communities, that of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The past half-century has been a difficult one for Argentina in general, and the Jewish community in particular. After a military dictatorship, devastating terrorist attacks on two Jewish landmarks, and a financial collapse, the community has risen from the ashes of their past to collectively build a bright future. After having run this gauntlet of historic horrors, they have emerged as energetic, optimistic, and most of all unified.
The week was spent touring many important landmarks and organizations that undergird and house the Jewish community both spiritually and pragmatically. We were greeted by organizations that provided social services for the most needy of the community, from childhood to eldercare, and honored all aspects of Jewish Argentina’s spiritual world, from maintaining now-defunct community buildings in rural areas to supporting new ventures, like their soon-to-open Reform seminary. Throughout our trip we witnessed the ideal of kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh embodied in a Jewish community which celebrates pluralism and finds ways to build together across economic and philosophical divides.
I returned home with new Torah from the wonderful community I was exposed to in Buenos Aires. This Torah was the necessity of collective local narrative. Argentinian Jews regularly make use of their history as a touch point for identity across all divides. The descendants of the Jewish Gauchos who raised cattle outside of the urban world as a way to escape a tumultuous czarist Russia and Eastern Europe, and of those who fled the horrors of World War Two, all viewed themselves as a single people. Through the horrors of the 20th and 21st century, the community was bonded together by trauma and internal support in reaction to the trauma. Their Judaism was not one of division by lineage, but one of connection through shared experience.
In a country as big and diverse as the United States, it is impossible to speak of a truly shared American identity. Each region, each city, each town, has its own story. These individual stories, which fuel the identities of Jewish Americans, must be lifted up and shared; must be used to create local and Jewish pride within each community. Like the Jews of Argentina, we must connect through our own shared histories, so that when we disagree, we can do so safely in the knowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. This local Jewish identity can then be used not only to strengthen local communities, but also as a way to connect to our more distant neighbors, by comparing and contrasting our stories and selves, delighting in the points of similarity while discussing and learning from the points of difference.
This incredible trip opened up a world to me that may be closer in kind to that of many American Jews than Israel. The small but mighty Jewish population of Buenos Aires has a great deal to teach those Jews living neither in Babylon nor Jerusalem. As we step deeper into the uncertainties of the twenty-first century, these smaller communities throughout the world will have a great deal to teach us about their already-developed local Jewish identity. We need only be willing to learn.
Andy Kahn is entering his fifth year as a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last three academic years.