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Latin American Jews Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

Friday, February 20, 2015

When the first Jews came to the area which would become the United States in 1654, they were able, with the support of the Dutch East India Trading Company, to live publically as Jews and to be accepted as such into the community. Three years later one of their group, Asser Levy, fought for and received the right to serve as a burgher guard, a sign of status in the community. Since then the question of fair treatment for Jews before the law in the U.S. has been resolved, even as there were periods of popular Anti-Semitism.

Political stability and economic opportunity lead to continuous growth and Jews who came to the US stayed. The Jewish community became a significant minority, culminating in the perception of “Protestant, Catholics and Jews,” as the basic building blocks of American religious life. The American Jewish community also incorporated differences of outlook, beginning with Reform dominance in the second half of the 19th century following the arrival of tens of thousands of German and other Central European Jews. This dominance changed with the influx of significant numbers of Eastern European Jews beginning in the 1880’s and continuing until World War I, but today once again the Reform movement is the largest of the religious movements in the Jewish community in the U.S.

The history of the Jews in Latin America is very different. It began a full century earlier but with the arrival of Converso’s, hidden Jews, refugees from Spain and Portugal.  At first life was easier for these Converso’s in the New World, but the Inquisition followed them and in many countries it was not until late in the 19th century that Jews could officially live publically as Jews. In addition Latin America did not experience political stability even as countries achieved independence. This had two important effects on the development of Jewish life. First, for the most part, Latin America missed out on the earlier phase of Central European immigration. Secondly, political instability lead to a wanderlust among Latin American Jews, often forced by changing political situations to move from country to country. Though there was a 19th century wave of immigration it was different than in North America. Many Jews who came to Latin America were Jewish refugees from the Ottoman Empire. These Sephardic Jews, primarily from Turkey, chose Latin America because they spoke Ladino, a Castillean version of Spanish and they hoped that would ease their way in the New World. When the Eastern European Jews arrived at the turn of the century they did not become one Jewish community with the Sephardim. Having no common language, they saw each other as “Les Otros” the others, with whom they did not mix or marry until well after the Second World War.

Finally a third difference was the attitude toward Reform. In many ways the situation of Jews in Latin America, is more like that of the Jews of Israel until the last decade. Sephardic Jews did not bring a tradition of Religious Reform, nor did the Jews of Eastern Europe. Though Latin American Jewry on the whole is not very observant, they are like many Israelis in that the synagogue they do not attend is Orthodox.

I spent last Shabbat with our 11th and 12th grade” Jews Around the World” class at a small synagogue in Guadalajara which is affiliated with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In many ways their synagogue was a microcosm of the experience of Latin American Jewry and some of its issues. The Jews there came from many different backgrounds. Some were the children of refugees from the Nazi era, finding their way to Mexico which had somewhat easier immigration regulations, either before or after the war. Some came to Mexico from other Latin American countries which experienced political instability, like Nicaragua and Cuba, or moved to Guadalajara from Mexico City, the center of Jewish life in Mexico. There were also Jews from Sephardic and Mizrachi backgrounds, of Turkish and Greek descent, and from Persia.

The congregation we visited is one of two congregations in the city. Up until about 10 years ago they were one congregation, affiliated with the Masorti movement, similar to our Conservative movement. Latin America has a Masorti rabbinical school in Argentina, founded by Rabbi Marshall Meyer, a hero of Argentinian Jewry for speaking out during a period of government abuse, and a major force on Jewish life throughout Latin America. Speaking very generally, about ten years ago a segment of the community in Guadalajara wanted to transform that synagogue into an Orthodox congregation with a mechitza, a dividing wall or curtain between the men and the women. In addition, there was resistance to the inclusion of converts to Judaism, women and men most of whom had married Jews and had chosen to adopt the Jewish faith.

The congregation we visited broke away at that point, being more welcoming to these families, who in Latin America are called Mixed Marrieds, despite the conversion. This congregation also introduced Bat Mitzvah, though in other ways their practice is reminiscent of Conservative Judaism in the United States 40 years ago with only men being called to the bimah, reading from the Torah, wearing tallit and so forth. But the issue of inclusion is a major issue, both for the adult converts, many of whom are leaders of the congregation, both in worship and in its general functioning, and also concerning the status of children.

A very active member of the congregation, whose husband, a convert to Judaism, lead the Friday night service we attended, told me with pain that her children are not accepted as Jews in the other congregation because their last name, Garcia, is not  a Jewish last name. This is so ironic because she, the mother, is Jewish.

Half of our group from Shir Hadash, included, as you might expect, individuals who would not pass this standard of “blood purity”, a very Spanish concept, either because of conversions in their family history or the presence of a non-Jewish parent. But knowing that our students are full participants in the American Jewish community, was a great witness to their congregation and assurance that there is a place for them in the Jewish world.

Our trip had many benefits- the work we did with the orphans and at an orphanage, the breaking down of stereotypes of Mexico as a lawless and dangerous place, but for me it was the face to face encounter with our fellow Jews in this Mexican congregation that was the most powerful.

It happened that on the Sunday we were in Guadalajara, the New York Times ran an op ed on the “Epidemic of Facelessness” --about the meanness that anonymity on the web seems to allow and encourage.  Talking about breaking the cycle of cruelty the article mentioned the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who taught that it was the encounter with another’s face that was the source of the formation of the ethical impulse. The author pointed out that contemporary neuroscience supports the view of this 20th century Jewish thinker. Scientists have found that it is seeing the other’s face that allows us to feel what the other person feels and this is what teaches us to respond compassionately to other people’s emotional states.  

It is a bit of an undertaking to bring teens from San Jose California to Guadalajara, Mexico but I don’t think there is anything that can take the place of the face to face encounter with its potential for understanding and sympathy.


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