Members of the Pittsburgh Jewish community recently returned from a week in Argentina touring Buenos Aires, engaging with South America’s largest Jewish community and observing the Iguazu Falls. The mission — “Amazing Argentina!” — was led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and included 24 participants.
Ted Goldberg, who chaired the mission with his wife, Carol, considered it a chance not only to visit a foreign country, but also to observe the effect of local dollars on a global scale.
“It’s an opportunity to travel with fellow supporters of the Federation and see the impact that our donations are having on some of the projects/charity that are supported by the Federation.”
The Federation believes it critical that mission-goers discover the effects of their support, said Jeff Finkelstein, a participant on the mission and CEO/president of Pittsburgh’s Federation. “The purpose of a mission is to go there and not only be a tourist, but see the kind of work we help make possible.”
David Sufrin, who traveled with the group, called the trip “amazing” and said that this mission differed from those that he had previously joined.
“It was great to see a different perspective of a Jewish community that is not as in dire need as some of the other communities we’ve visited on missions, like Moscow,” he said.
Goldberg, who like Sufrin has participated in other Federation led missions, agreed.
“It differed from other missions I’ve been on in the sense that I’ve been to Israel with the Federation, and to Odessa, Poland and Ethiopia and some other places. Those projects largely involved us supporting communities that were characterized by long-term overwhelming need, in Russia and in Ethiopia by tremendous poverty, in Israel by lots of new immigrants and long-term needs for Holocaust survivors,” said Goldberg. “In Argentina we were visiting a very large Jewish community that had been through a very stressful and difficult time related to the financial collapse, and the community seems to have weathered the worst storms because of its strong communal institutions and support.”
“It’s not to say that they don’t need help, but it’s a community that’s in better shape than many,” said Sufrin.
In detailing the community’s facets, Goldberg, Sufrin and Finkelstein recounted meaningful trips to various Jewish sites.
“We saw an ORT school that was providing education to a large number of Jewish students and a few non-Jewish students … it seemed to be providing a good secular education as well as a religious education,” said Goldberg.
The ORT School Almagro Campus is one of two schools in Buenos Aires operated by ORT (a nongovernment organization serving the Argentine Jewish community). Combined, both schools enroll over 6,000 students.
“The ORT School blew us all away,” said Finkelstein. “It’s a scientific
math-oriented high school that has Jewish and Israel education along with Hebrew language. And the level of sophistication when it came to the sciences was just amazing; these are kids coming out of high school who earn a certificate where they can actually design a building up to three stories. It’s really a powerful education because the kids come out with great practical skills and Jewish knowledge.”
Finkelstein added that the ORT School is supported by a Federation allocation.
Other notable encounters included a visit to the Grand Synagogue and the LeDor VaDor complex for the Jewish elderly, home to over 300 residents.
At the Grand Synagogue (Templo Libertad), participants learned the roots of Argentina’s Jewish communities.
“In the Buenos Aires area, we also visited the Grand Synagogue and heard the long history of the Argentine community, which had come out of Eastern Europe and Russia at about the same time that many of our grandparents left in the late 1800s and early 1900s and pre-Holocaust,” said Goldberg.
“We met their rabbi and some people in the congregation who were very gracious to meet us,” said Sufrin.
When asked about the LeDor VaDor senior center, Finkelstein marveled about their facilities.
“It’s as good as what we have here in our Jewish communities in the United States, it’s a beautiful facility,” said Finkelstein of the senior complex. “And you can see the services provided; the Federation through our support helped get that established.”
Particularly moving for mission-goers were stops at the Israeli Embassy and AMIA. During a 1992 bombing, 29 people were killed at the Israeli Embassy, and in a 1994 bombing, 85 people were killed at the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina). Last week, coincidentally during the Pittsburgh group’s mission, the new government of Argentina, under President Mauricio Macri, voided an agreement with Iran to jointly investigate the 1994 bombing. The decision was praised by both Argentine and Israeli leaders.
“We were able to visit the sites of both bombings — Israeli Embassy and the AMIA — and pay our respects to those who died in those bombings. Just the ability to pay our respects and feel the emotion of being there was a very strong emotion,” said Sufrin.
Also moving was a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony, held on the final night of the holiday.
“It was remarkable,” said Finkelstein. “I’m guessing there were 500 people in attendance, and our group was invited to light the fifth candle, so we all went up and the rabbi turned to us and said this is your home in Buenos Aires.”
Sufrin called the rabbi a “rock star” and claimed it was “because he’s so engaging and young.”
“You could just see his charisma and personality and the warmth he exuded,” added Finkelstein.
Near the end of their mission, participants traveled to see the Iguazu Falls, a series of waterfalls bordering Argentina and Brazil.
“It was just incredible nature,” said Sufrin.
“They are spectacular falls, much wider than Niagara Falls,” added Goldberg. “It was a shlep to get there, but everybody really enjoyed it.”
For both Goldberg and Finkelstein, traveling to Argentina was a reminder of Argentina’s economic progress and the support that the Federation provided.
“In the early 2000s this community and country went through a deep economic crisis, and I remember it because I was sitting at the Federation and we were making extra special grants at the time,” said Finkelstein, “The community really mirrored America with a strong middle class. [And] within a day there were some people in Argentina who were donors and supporters, and the next day they were getting food from a soup kitchen. Today, they are much more self-reliant. It was powerful to see the impact that we had.”
“My takeaway was that the help of the Jewish community, including Pittsburgh, was vital in enabling this Jewish community to survive as a thriving Jewish community and that their institutions took approaches that were a little bit different in some aspects than our institutions, but that they might be helpful in Pittsburgh, including their broad educational outreach to the diverse Jewish community,” said Goldberg.
Sufrin differed in his reflections on the experience.
“[Because of] what happened in Paris and in California, I kind of have a feeling that people are afraid to venture out past their safe and secure nest, and I think it’s important to put that aside and still see the world and see things you might not see on your own. If someone has the resources to do it, to go with friends, and people that became friends, it makes it all more worth it.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.