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Long-distance learning bolsters Jewish community in Latin America
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Long-distance learning bolsters Jewish community in Latin America

Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, bottom left, leads a Zoom class this week on lifecycle events with rabbinical students from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.
Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, bottom left, leads a Zoom class this week on lifecycle events with rabbinical students from Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.

In the fall of 1982, I received a letter that changed my life. It was from Rabbi Roberto Graetz. A few months earlier I had stayed with Graetz and his family in Rio de Janeiro for several days while researching my rabbinic thesis, on the history of liberal Judaism in South America.

Graetz wrote to ask if I would be interested in coming to Brazil after my ordination, to work with him in the pulpit of the Associação Religiosa Israelita, a synagogue in Rio. I accepted his offer; my three years there turned out to be a seminal experience.

Last year, Graetz again got in touch, asking if I would like to join him on the faculty of the Instituto Iberoamericano de Formación Rabínica Reformista, based in Buenos Aires. I had heard of the institute but didn’t really know anything about it. However, given Graetz’s track record for good suggestions, any invitation from him seemed worth accepting.

Securing rabbis to serve Reform congregations in Latin America has long been a challenge. A few norteamericanos have been, like me, intrigued by the challenge of a new country and a new language. Several natives, like Graetz, had to spend several years in North America and Israel, preparing for an eventual return. Still others had studied at the Conservative movement’s Seminario Rabinico in Buenos Aires.

Nevertheless, the shortage of rabbis was chronic and stymied the movement’s growth. It was clear that the only long-term solution was the establishment of a locally based rabbinical training program, and thus the Instituto was created. It was the brainchild of Sergio Bergman, a prominent Argentinian rabbi then serving as a minister in his country’s government and now president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism — the international organization of the Reform movement —Reuben Nisenbom of Buenos Aires, a veteran of the Latin American Reform rabbinate; and Graetz, recently retired from a congregation near San Francisco.

A formal dedication ceremony was held in Buenos Aires, at Templo Libertad, the “cathedral” of Argentine Jewry; the Israeli ambassador to Argentina was among those in attendance. Graetz and Rabbi Damian Karo, the Instituto’s dean, began work on the curriculum, and the first students started classes in early 2018.

From the start, Instituto classes have been held via Zoom. The students — all full time — have several hours of classes each week, in addition to being assigned a significant amount of homework. All students and faculty members attend in-person week-long seminars twice each year, one in Brazil and the other in Argentina.

The students study the subjects that all rabbinical students study: Tanach, rabbinics, Jewish history and philosophy, and theology.

Graetz asked me to teach a class on practical rabbinics. I was not sure how a virtual seminary could be effective but, again, my trust in him proved sound.

I quickly learned that students enrolling in the Instituto already possess a great deal of Jewish knowledge and excellent Hebrew. For nearly all, the rabbinate is a second career and they are ready for serious studies.

The five students in my class are typical. Three are in Buenos Aires, one is in Chile, and one, though an Argentinian, is in Brazil. Besides South America, there are also Instituto students in Spain.

Students must be able to understand lectures in both Spanish and Portuguese and to read English.  I lecture in Portuguese but the students are all native Spanish speakers, so they respond in that language.  This causes me to switch to Spanish, or more accurately, to Portuñol, the pidgin combination of the two languages.  Happily, we all understand each other.

All the students have a faculty mentor whom they meet with regularly, and engage in supervised community work. Most of the students previously worked in a non-rabbinic professional capacity in the Jewish community; the rest were active volunteers.

In class, we spend a lot of time discussing issues surrounding life-cycle events. Having been a rabbi in both Brazil and the United States, I know it is important to view what happens in each place through that community’s cultural lens; family dynamics are not the same everywhere.

In my class — with six of us in four different countries — the conversation expands, as we compare and contrast, say, the impact of a new arrival on the extended family. We share the dynamics of our respective cultures, learn from each other, and are enriched by the depth of our discussions.

My students — Edy, Hernan, Martin, Pablo, and Silvia — are all on the senior rabbinic track. They are people of substance and tenacity who work hard and have a strong commitment to Jewish life. Throughout South America, there are congregations that will be eager to have them.

And even though our contact has been through Zoom, after many hours of conversation I am confident I genuinely know these students. I’ve had many out-of-class sessions with them individually to review material, talk through challenges, or simply get to know one another better. I feel I am participating in something important, with the potential to influence the Latin American Jewish community in significant ways.

I applaud those whose imagination led to the Instituto’s creation and those who made that vision a reality. Their impact on the Jewish community will long endure, providing increasing opportunities for Jews in that part of the world to be involved in Jewish life, and building a Jewish community that is stronger, healthier, and better able to fulfill the mandate all Jews received on Sinai. 

Clifford Kulwin is rabbi emeritus of Temple B’nai Abraham, Livingston.

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