Yes, I am Jewish. While I am no longer overtly active in a religious sense, it is a huge part of my identity. So one of the things I made sure to make a part of my trip to Buenos Aires was to explore a bit of the Jewish community here. After all, Argentina has the world’s sixth largest Jewish population at around 160,000 and the overwhelming majority of those live here in the capital.
My experience would begin on my first full day in Buenos Aires. I had a day of initial exploration planned, so a jolt of caffeine was in order. Here in my neighborhood of Palermo, I found a coffee shop with amazing reviews just around the corner from my flat. I arrived and ordered a latte, then looked up to notice a certificate of kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, by the door. Many of the other customers were wearing yarmulkes. I smiled. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, I had rented a flat in one of the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods in Buenos Aires!
Jewish immigration to Argentina began in earnest in the late nineteenth century, as Jews trying to escape the pogroms of Russia and Eastern Europe looked for places to go that would accept them. By 1920, roughly 150,000 Jews, mainly of Eastern European (Ashkenazi) descent, were living in the country. While Argentina’s constitution guaranteed religious freedom, it wasn’t until the government of Juan Peron in the 1940s that Jews were allowed to hold office.
The 1930s and 1940s marked the peak of the Jewish community of Argentina, both in numbers and in the building of one of the most beautiful synagogues I’ve seen on my travels. Templo Libertad was completed in 1932, although plans and construction began some 35 years prior as the Jewish community of Buenos Aires grew. Located just up the street from the magnificent Teatro Colon, Templo Libertad is able to keep up with the upscale appearance and grandiose nature of the surrounding buildings.
Visitors are allowed, though foreigners must show their passports (other ID will not suffice as I learned on my first attempt at seeing the inside of the synagogue). The building also hosts the Jewish Museum of Buenos Aires, and a short English audio guide walks visitors through the history of the synagogue and some of the museum’s exhibits.
The inside is airy, a stunning two-story structure with a beautiful golden backdrop to the ark, incredible stained glass, and lovely chandeliers. During my visit, musicians were warming up for a Wednesday afternoon concert, though I didn’t stay the extra hour or so for it to begin.
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jewish emigration from Argentina began, with many fleeing from anti-Semitism here to the new Jewish state. Argentina was one of the countries that gave haven to former Nazi officials, most famously to Adolf Eichmann, which sort of tells you how the government viewed those who tried to kill off the Jewish people, despite outwardly being pro-Jewish. And that anti-Semitism would only get worse in the second half of the twentieth century.
Argentina’s ruling military junta in the 1970s and 1980s actively sought out those who spoke against the regime to “disappear.” Jews were disproportionately targeted. After a return to democracy in 1983, governments spoke out against overt anti-Semitism, but the 1990s brought two massive terrorist attacks against Jews here in Buenos Aires. First, in 1992, the Israeli embassy was bombed, killing 29 people. Then, in 1994, AMIA (the Jewish community center) was bombed, with 85 left dead and more than 200 wounded.
I attempted to visit AMIA on this trip, though unfortunately was unable to finalize anything. Security, as you can imagine, is tight; vehicles aren’t able to park along the street, bomb blast walls line the sidewalk along with security cameras and both guards and uniformed police, and there are no windows facing the street at all. While I am disappointed not to be able to experience that aspect of the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, I am grateful for the level of protection and how seriously it is taken.
On the block AMIA sits on, plaques line both sides of the street, each fronted by a tree, for the victims of the bombing. Sadly, some in the government didn’t take even that loss of life seriously, with one official claiming that both “real Argentines and Jewish Argentines” were killed.
While there has certainly been hardship, today’s Buenos Aires Jewish community seems to be going strong. Multiple Jewish schools exist here. Cafes advertise kosher food. Some restaurants even promote Jewish cuisine. Jews in yarmulkes walk the sidewalks, and synagogues are open and thriving. It is something I love to see, and makes me feel more a part of the city than I otherwise would.
Buenos Aires may not have the extensive Jewish history of a place like Prague, but the community here is large, vibrant, and part of the fabric of modern life. For Jewish travelers like me, it adds a dimension to an already incredible destination, one that enhances my experience immensely.
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