Seeing the Jewish Side of Buenos Aires


Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina,
Congregacion Israelita de la Republica Argentina, "Libertad," Buenos Aires


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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 Assistance Centers. 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
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 entertained.

A Klezmer Band, Segundo Mundo, performing  at the Sunday market in San Telmo
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 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 Movement.

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 Argentina.”

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: 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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