Argentina has the largest Jewish population in South America, with nearly 200,000 people. Therefore, it is a good and relatively easy place for Jews to visit and travel. You will find many minyans to choose from in the capital city of Buenos Aires, and more kosher shops and restaurants than you will know what to do with. When we first met, Rebbetzin Rachel was living and studying at a university in Buenos Aires.
Jewish history in Argentina reaches as far back as South America’s settlement starting in 1492, although the first groups of Jews died out due to assimilation. In the 1880s, Jewish immigration to Argentina began in earnest, as Jews fled Tzarist Russia. In the 1930s, this was followed by Jewish immigration from Europe, where Jews were fleeing the Nazis. In the 1940s and 1950s, more Jews arrived from the Middle East. This immigration was facilitated by the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), which purchased tracts of agricultural land in Argentina and helped Jews resettle there. Therefore, the Jewish population of Argentina is extremely diverse and is split between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, although the majority are Ashkenazi.
Anti-Semitism is not rampant in Argentina, but it does exist. It has a long history, as for a long time, Jews were not permitted to hold positions in the government or to join the military. And even though Argentina did admit 30,000-40,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, it was not receptive to those fleeing Hitler and his Nazis. Under dictator Juan Peron, countless Nazis fleeing justice were admitted, and the Mossad abduction and trial of Adolf Eichmann from Buenos Aires led to a large amount of anti-Semitic backlash there. Currently, there is little overt anti-Semitism, although in recent decades there have been two well-publicized terrorist attacks, in 1992 and 1994. Still, there is now a law against racism and anti-Semitism in Argentina and Jews are often found holding high government positions.
Unfortunately, due to the economic crash of 1998-2001, many Jews in Argentina now live in poverty or have fled the country altogether. This has severely affected community institutions, which now have decreased membership. You will find that many synagogues in Argentina do an “oneg” on Friday nights after services, as a way to enable poor Jews to partake of a Shabbat meal.
There are more than 50 Orthodox Synagogues and more than 20 Conservative synagogues in Buenos Aires alone, so it would be impossible to list them all here. Many Jews live in the “Once” neighborhood of Buenos Aires, near the famous Abasto shopping mall, which boasts of the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. Argentina also has more than 70 Jewish schools of all levels and more than 60% of Jewish children attend these schools. There are also 18 Jewish cemeteries in Argentina, of which 7 remain active.
When you visit Buenos Aires, you may choose to spend your time in Once, which is the district of Buenos Aires with the largest Jewish population. There are countless synagogues there, as well as seminaries for girls and yeshivas for boys. There are many kosher shops and there is also a list of kosher products certified by the Ajdut Kosher organization, which you can find in the supermarket there. There are also many, many restaurants serving kosher food, including meat restaurants where you can try Argentina’s famous beef, one of the most famous pizza shops in all of South America, as well as Rebbetzin Rachel’s favorite little hole-in-the-wall empanada shop, Wafflemania.
Outside of Buenos Aires, you will need to do some research. There are Jewish communities in many smaller cities, such as Rosario and Cordoba, but you might find you need to pack and bring some food with you if you’re going to a place without an established community.
There is a lot to do in Argentina. It is the kind of place that has something for everyone. There is nature, including glaciers and mountains to climb, as well as many interesting and amazing wild animals to see up close. You can take in culture in Buenos Aires. You can almost hop over to Antarctica from Argentina’s southernmost tip. And of course, don’t miss the unbelievable Iguazu Falls in the north. Mendoza is a famous wine-making city in the west of the country, near Chile. No matter what your taste, you will be able to find it in this huge and diverse country!