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Jewish Buenos Aires
By Dr. Robert Norman
My wife Carol and I had our first trip to South America in October of 2007
and we were ready for adventure. We spent the first week in the huge urban
sprawl of Buenos Aires, a place of meat eaters and tango dancers and high-speed
taxi drivers. I was giving lectures and attending courses at the World
Congress of Dermatology, but in between we had time to visit Jewish Buenos Aires
and programs sponsored by the UJC.
On a beautiful Tuesday morning, our guide, Ariela Bodner, and our driver
picked up my wife Carol and me, along with our friends Richard and Paule from
Colorado, at the Panamericano Hotel on Avenue Carlos Pellegrini.
Our first visit was to the Ariel Job Center, the first Employment and Small
Business Center of the Jewish Community, opened in 2001, in response to the
economic crisis. The clients using the Ariel-on-line data base for employment
opportunities, technical training and personalized counseling. The economic
crisis caused more than 10,000 Jews to leave Argentina, with about 6,000
emigrating to Israel.
Inside the same building as the Job Center is the Libertad Synagogue. Built
in 1892, it is the oldest Synagogue in Buenos Aires and has been declared of
special historic interest. Its formal name is the Congregacion Israeilita
de la Republica Argentina, but is known as the “Libertad” because it is
located at Libertad 733 in Buenos Aires.
Next we visited the Central Pharmacy, a facility that centralizes the
purchase of medicines for all the beneficiaries in the welfare system of the Jewish
Community. We were told they serve over 3,000 people throughout Argentina.
When we were at the center, they were coordinating deliveries to a couple
that were Holocaust survivors. We met several volunteers who were packaging
the medications and helping to get the supplies organized.
We next arrived at the Baby Help Center. The JDC´s Baby Help program targets
pregnant women and children (ages 0-3 years) from vulnerable families who
are listed in the Community information system as beneficiaries of the Social
By providing these families with basic material and social support, the
program helps enable parents to meet their children’s health care needs and to
improve the parent-child relationship which can be greatly weakened by the
impact of economic adversity, parental absence from the home, depression, and
other obstacles. In addition, the program allocates resources to look after
children with working mothers.
Donating clothes from Florida to the Baby Help Center program
Buenos Aires is one of the world's greatest Jewish centers, with an
estimated Jewish population of over 250,000. The historical focus of the community
are the neighborhoods of Once and Abasto. In the beginning of the 20th century,
immigration of both Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe escaping pogroms and
Sephardic Jews who emigrated after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the
end of World War I filled the Jewish community.
We drove to Once (pronounced OWN-say), Buenos' Aires version of New York's
Lower East Side. Although it is officially named Balvanera, but the barrio is
known commonly as Once, or eleven, from the neighborhood train station
(formerly 11 de Septiembre; today the station is called Sarmiento), which recalls
a historical political uprising.
Many Jews in these communities have now dispersed to the suburbs and have
been replaced by other immigrants. The neighborhoods continue to have kosher
restaurants, Jewish businesses, and various synagogues, although Once is
primarily the garment district. In the Abasto Shopping Center food court is the
only Kosher McDonald's in the world outside of Israel.
The Abasto Shopping Center is one of the largest in all of Buenos Aires,
built over an earlier market where the famous tango crooner Carlos Gardel had
his beginning as a singer. As a child Gardel sang to the various fruit and
meat vendors who had stalls and they would give him a few centavos to keep them
A Klezmer Band, Segundo Mundo, performing at the Sunday market in San Telmo
In 1992 a bomb attack on Buenos Aires's Israeli Embassy killed 29 people.
In 1994 an attack on the Jewish community group Asociación Mutual Israelita
Argentina (AMIA) killed 85 people. Argentines of all faiths responded to the
attacks by massive candlelight vigils. Visit AMIA's website at www.amia.org.ar
for more information.
The Argentine branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary opened in 1962 and
trains Rabbis from all over Argentina and Latin America in the Conservative
Most of Argentina’s synagogues are traditional (21 Conservative Synagogues,
50 Orthodox Synagogues and a few Reform Synagogues). The majority of the
synagogues built pre-World War II are still in use today.
On Friday, we returned to this beautiful Libertad Synagogue, along with the
Biros, friends from New York. From our hotel, it was a brisk 15 minute walk.
The security man at the Synagogue’s entrance asked us a few questions and we
passed the test and were admitted.
A male and female singer filled the great acoustical chamber with the
moving, familiar songs of the Sabbath that accompanied the sermon and prayers. We
met with the rabbi, who told us “Please consider us your Jewish home in
For more information
We had arranged our visit earlier with Freyda Reiss Weiss, Coordinator,
Overseas Program Visits for the UJC (American Jewish Joint Distribution
Committee) (212) 885 – 0827 website: http://www.jdc.org/
For donations to the program, please contact Freyda at
Libertad synagogue picture © George Wolberg
from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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