Although there are no reports of casualties among the 25,000 members of Chile’s Jewish community, Comunidad Israelita de Concepcion, a Masorti (Conservative) congregation with 25 families, was destroyed in the country’s Feb. 27 earthquake.
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, an organization also known as Masorti Olami, will soon head to Concepcion to inspect the damages.
Graetz, who lives in Israel, was scheduled to speak March 10 at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, whose religious leader, Rabbi Alan Silverstein, is immediate past president of the World Council. Ahead of that talk, he spoke to NJJN March 8 about the earthquake damage and his efforts on behalf of Conservative Judaism.
NJJN: What is your organization’s mission?
Graetz: We help develop Masorti Conservative Judaism around the world, except Israel and North America — all the places in Europe and Latin America, Africa, and Australia. We also have very strong ties and connections with our sister movements in Israel and North America.
We help develop communities by training leaders and training rabbis. Our best-kept secret is that the majority of Latin American Jews are Masorti Jews. Today we have almost 80 communities there, six of them in Chile. That is maybe 60 percent of the Jews in Chile. There are a small number of Orthodox synagogues, and Chabad is there as well.
NJJN: What happened to the synagogue in Concepcion?
Graetz: It was almost fully destroyed. Rabbi Angel Kreiman [the congregation’s religious leader, who was scheduled to join the Caldwell program by phone] had his home destroyed as well as his synagogue. When he came to the synagogue, he said,“This is ‘hurban habayit,’” the destruction of the Temple. He took the sifrei Torah and ran away.
NJJN: Was there anyone in the synagogue at the time?
Graetz: No. Luckily it was at about 3 a.m. There was no one there. He was in a smaller town 125 miles away from his hometown, where he performed a bar mitzva.
NJJN: What is the Masorti movement doing to help him and the people of Chile?
Graetz: Now they are starting a big active campaign to rebuild the synagogue. They are estimating the cost at around $200,000. Masorti Olami has a campaign and hundreds of people are donating already — not $200,000, unfortunately, but a very serious amount. It will be used not only to rebuild the synagogue in Concepcion, but will also go to the Jewish community in Santiago and the efforts the Jewish community is giving to help the general population. We do this on a daily basis. This is tikun olam.
NJJN: What is your message to the people who come to hear your speech in Caldwell?
Graetz: World Jewry has a responsibility to one another. The concept of Jewish peoplehood feels it has a sense of destiny, which is building and enlightening the world through a sane, moderate kind of religion. While in distress we get together and help one another in the concept of klal Yisrael and mutual responsibility.
NJJN: Does the fact that the Chilean earthquake happened just a month after the one in Haiti and there was a big outpouring of money and sympathy for the Haitians affect this effort in any way?
Graetz: In Haiti there were no Jewish communities that I know of. What is nice to see this time is that the Masorti Conservative movement got together and in a collective effort has reached out to help the Chilean Jews. It is really a feeling of a brethren. We are not a dying movement. This is proof that we are a vibrant movement and we have a lot to contribute to the Jewish world.