The Rabbi Writes

The Jewish Humanist, November 1989, Vol. XXVI, Number 4

My Trip to South America, Part II 

Humanistic Judaism is now part of the South American Jewish scene.  Two small national organizations exist-one in Argentina and one in Uruguay. Both of them sent representatives to the first meeting of the International Federation in Detroit. 

Although the Argentine and Uruguayan associations did not appear until 1986, a secular approach to Jewish identity has deep roots in Latin America. The first immigration to Argentina in the early part of the twentieth century included many radical idealists who had rebelled against orthodox dictation and who sought to transform Jewish life by returning to the land and creating secular Jewish communes. The children of these pioneers ultimately ended up in Buenos Aires and the other big cities of Argentina.  For many of these radicals their Jewishness was expressed in a passionate commitment to Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class. 

In Uruguay the very nature of the country encouraged secularism.  Little Uruguay was the first Latin American country to establish a radical separation of church and state.  Strongly influenced by European liberal ideals, the ruling elite of Uruguay developed one of the most secular countries in the world.  Only in Uruguay could an avowed atheist become the president of the nation.  Today almost half the population declares itself to be “non-believers”.  Even Scandinavia and Holland can hardly match that percentage. 

In such an environment the Jewish milieu mirrored the Gentile precedent.  Reinforced by some of the same radicals who made their way to Argentina, the Montevideo community initially featured a Jewishness that was more cultural than religious. 

Ultimately Jewish organizational identity in both Argentina and Uruguay was chiefly expressed in institutions other than synagogues.  Jewish schools (both part-time and full-time), Jewish community centers Yiddishist cultural associations and Zionist societies became the foundatons of Jewish communal life.  Jews were secular without being fully aware that secularism or humanism were alternatives to the old religious ideology. 

Ever since the 1950’s important changes have occurred in both communities.  The continuous political and economic turmoil-especially in Argentina-stimulated emigration to either Israel or North America.  (Argentina’s Jewish population declined from 400,000 to 300,000; Uruguay’s from 50,000 to 30,000).  The attempt by the American Conservative movement to establish a sister movement in Latin America proved very successful.  A Conservative seminary was created in Buenos Aires; and its graduates have become religious pioneers in a secular world.  The success of the Conservatives is due to their ability to mix Zionism and bourgeois respectability in a nice delicate balance-and, above all, to the quality of their trained leaders.  Disorganized secularism could not compete against such competence. 

Also the emergence of the ultra-Orthodox missionaries and zealots has made an important impact.  Posing as the defenders of Jewish identity in a world of assimilation, they have invaded Jewish communal structures, demanding subsidies and offering their services for Jewish education.  Many secularists are bewildered about how to confront such passionate determination. 

Today the Jewish communities of Argentina and Uruguay remain different from those in North America in very distinct ways.  Although many Jewish families go back through four generations of local residence, most Jews are of more recent vintage-post World War I and World War II.  Being newer they are less assimilated than their American counterparts. 

Religious organizations, while stronger than they were before, are still weaker than their secular counterparts-schools, clubs and centers.  And the intensity of Zionism is far stronger than its American counterpart.  In the states, Zionism is primarily a financial commitment.  In Buenos Aires and Uruguay it is a cultural, linguistic and aliya commitment.  In fact, many of the educational institutions receive financial support from the Jewish Agency in Israel. 

The new secular humanistic Jewish associations that have emerged are a reflection of this nationalistic commitment.  In the face of growing Orthodoxy and Conservatism, many secularists now want to develop a much more self-aware ideology, with the ceremonial and communal supports that make it real.  Their humanistic Judaism is cosmopolitan, but it is also very Zionistic-with many of its members speaking Hebrew.  Some remnants of anti-Zionist Yiddishist socialist nationalism survive.  But they are dying out. 

Stimulated by their awareness of the establishment of Humanist (sic) Judaism in North America and Israel local leaders organized communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires three years ago.  The leadership in Argentina consisted of academicians like Gregorio Klimovsky, Yiddishists like Gregorio Lerner and Eliyahu Toker, and Zionists like Paul Warshawsky and Daniel Colodenco.  The leadership in Uruguay featured two devoted and talented men-psychoanalyst Leopoldo Mueller and the journalist Egon Friedler. 

Both associations are in early stages of development.  And, like all other Jews, they are contending with the recurring political and economic woes that plague the area. But there is a strong determination to reach out to the largely secularized Jewish communities to mobilize more people. 

Right now their strategy for survival and growth include four priorities: 

1.The publication of a semi-annual or quarterly journal called Judaismo Laico, which can be used to diffuse humanistic Jewish ideas through Latin America. 

2. The development of ceremonial materials in Spanish and Hebrew to provide for personal and communal celebrations of holidays and life-cycle events in a secular way. 

3. Recruiting one or two qualified people who can be trained as madrikhim (teacher leaders) by the International Institute in Jerusalem to serve the education, counseling and ceremonial needs of the members of the associations. 

4. Organizing a Latin American regional association-including the two communities of Argentina and Uruguay-which could reach out to sympathetic people in other Latin American countries. Initially the journal would serve as its major vehicle for outreach. 

The future of Humanistic Judaism in Latin America will depend on many factors, some unpredictable. But if the enthusiasm of its founders is significant, its survival and growth are off to a good start.