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Students encounter tragic past, thriving present in Argentina
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Students encounter tragic past, thriving present in Argentina

Hillel trip reveals ‘many ways to be Jewish’

The Princeton CJL group takes a break from touring at Hillel Argentina in Buenos Aires. Photo by Julie Roth
The Princeton CJL group takes a break from touring at Hillel Argentina in Buenos Aires. Photo by Julie Roth

Princeton University freshman Zev Mishell grew up in a Conservative household in Chicago. He spent last year at a yeshiva in Israel, where, he said, he decided that “being observant was the best … way” to be Jewish. During his first semester at Princeton, he looked for “the balance I want of Jewish observance,” and decided to attend the Conservative minyan at the Center for Jewish Life/Princeton Hillel (CJL).

But over a winter-break trip to Argentina sponsored by CJL, Mishell said, he discovered “that there are so many ways to be Jewish.”

Fourteen students participated in the Dec. 17-24 Hillel Argentina program, led by CJL executive director Rabbi Julie Roth.

Mishell said he was particularly moved by a Friday night service the group attended at Comunidad Amijai in Buenos Aires. Gabrielle Sudilovsky — a fellow freshman from Cleveland whose father grew up in Argentina — described that service as “almost like a concert. There were hundreds of people, two rabbis and two women singing, a pianist, a guitarist, a clarinetist, harmonies, and lots of vibrato.”

Mishell said, “It was different from anything I had experienced before,” but he saw it as “an alternative way of creating spaces of spirituality.”

At the Jewish cemetery in Moisés Ville, the oldest in Argentina. Photo by Noah Daniel

Trip coleader Miriam Friedman, a senior from Long Island, said that service was a unique experience for many of the participants and provoked discussion on “what religion means to different people.”

Sudilovsky said some of the students thought the Amijai congregants were overly focused on personal enjoyment, but, she said, “If this is meaningful to Argentinian-Jewish culture and what gets them connected to Judaism, I think it is meaningful and valid.”

Mishell said he was somewhat bothered by the “performative” nature of the service, but that it gave him “insight into a different way of being Jewish.”

For junior Preeti Iyer, a Hindu and one of two non-Jews on the trip, the discussions following the service showed her that “Jewish people have very different religious journeys and experiences. They are shaped by different family experiences and by different religious and cultural experiences.”

Other moments in Argentina evoked Jewish survival and the specter of anti-Semitism.

In Buenos Aires the students visited the Parque de la Memoria, a monument to the desaparecidos, victims of state-sponsored terrorism, many of them Jews, who were “disappeared” during the “Dirty War” of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. The monument is a park along the Rio de la Plata, where many of those victims were dumped from helicopters.

The memorial, designed by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, to the victims of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. Photo by Gabrielle Sudilovsky

Visiting the memorial, wrote senior Maya Aronoff in an email to NJJN, “I felt powerfully the connection between Jewish history, suffering, and resilience — and the obligation our history and faith puts on us to … make sure ‘never again’ applies to every community across our human family.” Aronoff was a trip coleader.

For Roth, the military dictatorship felt “very fresh historically, and locally there’s a sense of needing to protect democracy” — especially after the Princetonians heard from a Jewish woman whose parents were “disappeared” when she was 9 months old because of their political involvement. Argentinian Jews, said Roth, still feel they can’t rely on the police and the military to protect them, because historically they have been anti-Semitic.

The students were further reminded of the need for security during their visit to AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), the Buenos Aires hub of the Jewish community, where 85 victims died in a 1994 terror bombing. Sudilovsky was touched seeing “how this community had such a tragedy but pulled through and honored the victims.”

Sudilovsky also found a surprising personal connection when the group visited Moisés Ville, a town founded in 1889 by 136 Eastern European and Russian-Jewish families escaping persecution. When the students visited the Jewish cemetery — the first in Argentina, established after a typhus epidemic in 1891 killed 60 of the town’s children — Sudilovsky discovered the grave of her paternal great-great-grandmother, from nearby Las Palmeras. Group members joined Sudilovsky in the Mourner’s Kaddish.

The students visit one of the three synagogues in Moisés Ville, established by Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia. Photo by Noah Daniel

The visitors were widely impressed by the Argentinians’ warmth — particularly evident in the young people they met in the Hillels they visited in Cordoba and Buenos Aires.

Friedman appreciated “the sense of welcome that was just part of their culture and way they were really open-minded….” She was particularly moved by the organizer of their day on a gaucho (cowboy) reserve in Cordoba, who went three hours out of his way to buy glatt kosher meat for two of the students. “He had been marginalized for his religion, and it was really important to him that everyone … would have what they needed,” said Friedman.

Roth also noted the “wonderful vibrancy” in the Jewish community. When she had taken students on trips to places like Morocco and Greece, she said, there were no thriving synagogues or many young people to meet; in Argentina, however, “there is a thriving Jewish community….”

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