The Jewish Community of Comodoro Rivadavia

Introduction
Photographs
Video

 

 


The phenomenon of migrations has separated and united families, has destroyed old and created new boundaries. Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, Argentina has been a crucial witness of such migration. Among the immigrants who came to South America from all around the world, many Jews arrived on the coasts of Argentina. They established themselves in different settlements of the provinces of Entre Ríos, Santa Fe, La Pampa and Buenos Aires, and in the capital city and its surrounding areas. Many families received plots of land from the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) at the end of the nineteenth century, and settled in rural areas. In later decades, in different parts of the country, Jewish immigrants established themselves in other non-agrarian settlements, such as Comodoro Rivadavia in Patagonia.

Many different authors have studied the Jewish immigration to Argentina. However, most focus on either agrarian settlements or the capital city of Buenos Aires and the outlying areas. Study has yet to be devoted to Jews in Comodoro Rivadavia in the province of Chubut. To local people, it is apparent that Jews have been living in the city for decades, but because of its relatively small population, little attention has been given to the Jewish community. This study focuses on the experience of Jews in Comodoro Rivadavia and also enlarges the knowledge about the Jewish experience in Argentina during the 20th and 21st centuries.

When did Jews begin migrating to Comodoro? Did they form family networks? Did they arrive in large groups, as families, or as individuals? What did they seek in moving to the city? Was it a permanent or temporary decision? Do these Jewish immigrants share particular characteristics, and have these characteristics changed over generations? What does being Jewish in Comodoro mean? In order to answer these questions, one must analyze the history of the Jewish community in Comodoro Rivadavia, from before the creation of the Israeli Association in the early 1960’s until today. In so doing, the special characteristics shared among members of the Israeli Association and the way the members' Judaism has affected the development of the community take on a special importance. In order to understand the Jewish experience in the city of Comodoro Rivadavia, one must also consider external political, economic, and geographic factors of the 20th and the 21st centuries.

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The 1940’s and 1950’s: Early Community

Fernando Kazakevich, a native of Comodoro Rivadavia, related, "My father told me that when he arrived in Comodoro in the 1940’s, there were many meetings organized by Jews, who were worried about the events of the Second World War. According to him, and other people who agree with him, 400 Jews used to gather in lounges.” In addition to the social meetings, Jewish immigrants in Comodoro would also gather to commemorate Jewish festivities. The immigrants had received a strong religious education in Europe and thus kept their traditions alive in the new settlement despite certain limitations. Mr. Kazakevich remembered, “There was no rabbi, but all of that generation was a religious one.” Therefore, even though there no formal Jewish leader existed, the main rituals were performed by the immigrants themselves who had carried with them the knowledge of Jewish law and traditions.

The late 1950's: More Jews come to Comodoro

During the 1950’s, the Jewish presence in Comodoro Rivadavia grew. More people started to migrate to Patagonia from other parts of Argentina, and many families were having children in the city. Although the majority of Jews who moved to the city were Ashkenazim and came with their families, there were exceptions. For example, Benjamin Lerea, whose parents came from Esmirna, is a Sephardic Jew. Born in 1936 in the province of Corrientes, Lerea spent his childhood in Ibarreta, Formosa and his teenage years in Buenos Aires. He then moved to Comodoro on his own in the 1950’s and worked for various private oil companies over a 10-year period. While some people came alone and others with their families, the main motivation to move to Comodoro was economic due to the city's employment opportunities. Lerea's wife, Marta Raquel Falicoff, was born in the capital city of Buenos Aires in 1940, but moved to Comodoro with her family in 1949. Her grandparents were Romanian.

The Cantor

Jacobo Magidow

For many decades prior to the creation of the Israeli Association, Samuel Magidow was the main cantor during the religious ceremonies. His son Jacobo recalled, "During the Jewish commemorations, my father used to sing. He did not need a book; he knew it very deeply. He had such a voice... with a feeling, with a tonality... And for many years he sang in the Society. Since the moment he came here, in ‘37… he never stopped singing." He continued, "Every year they waited for him so that he could sing. They would always help each other, but the main prayers were always performed by my father."

Late 1960’s, and the 1970’s: Re-emigration, and Generational Change

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s two major phenomena affected the Jewish community of Comodoro Rivadavia and led to a decrease in the membership of the Israeli Association. One of them was “re-emigration,” or the resettlement of many Jews who moved to Buenos Aires or other big cities.

The other main shift that occurred in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a generational change. During these years, many Jewish immigrants from the older generations passed away. These elders were the ones who had received a strong Jewish education and had religious knowledge. Therefore, without an institution to preserve their knowledge, many rituals died along with the elders.

 

Cemeteries

Jose Mekler

Most families have buried their deceased in Buenos Aires because a Jewish cemetery does not exist in Comodoro. A few Jews, including Jose Mekler’s three-year-old brother and the parents of Marta Falicoff de Lerea’s, are buried in the municipal cemetery of Comodoro Rivadavia. Fernando Kazakevich explained the significance of burial grounds: “When my father was the president, the municipality offered him a terrain to have a cemetery. But it is not only about having a cemetery; it is necessary to be able to construct it, to maintain it, and somebody must perform the ceremony. If there is no religious authority, there is no rabbi, there is nobody, it is impossible... So, everyone was thinking about Buenos Aires. If somebody died they wanted to have him or her buried in Buenos Aires.”


The Glinski Case

Although many Jewish families left Comodoro Rivadavia, a few decided to remain in the city because of economic stability or the birth of their children. This is the case of Gregorio Glinski, current president of the Israeli Association, and his family. He related his story:

"[My parents] had intended to come here for two years to make some money and later move to Buenos Aires. First, my sister Sara was born, and later I was born. It was always their dream to live in Buenos Aires so that they could live in a more important Jewish community, with Jewish education for their children. But this was never to happen, and it is the classic case of a family of immigrants who, as we say in Comodoro, lived 'with their suitcases prepared behind their door,' so that when the moment came they could return…concretely to Buenos Aires…In our case, that never occurred and we now stand here firmly."

The 1980's

Adriana Nillni

Beginning in the middle 1980s, some Jews who had been studying in Buenos Aires, such as Fernando and Gregorio, returned to Comodoro, while others came to the city for the first time, like Adriana Nillni. In contrast to earlier decades, those who moved to Comodoro Rivadavia in the 1980’s returned or arrived with the initial intention of permanently settling in the city.

What does it mean to be Jewish in Comodoro Rivadavia?

The Mondrik Family

In large Jewish communities such as those in Buenos Aires, education played a large role in maintaining Jewish identity. As Dora Schwarzstein articulated the emphasis on education, “The Jewish community in Buenos Aires gave education a place of preference in community life. It was the guarantee of the continuity of the Jews, and a fence to prevent assimilation to the majority of society and its culture” (Schwarzstein 134). In the case of Comodoro, Jewish education was unavailable, so Jews had to find other ways to pass on values and traditions. As occurred in Buenos Aires with certain secular movements, Jews “assumed a lay Jewish identity, while respecting certain practices related to tradition, such as celebrating certain festivities, Bar’Mitzvah, the Jewish marriage, or burying the dead in cemeteries from the [Jewish] community” (Schwarzstein 131). In Comodoro, being Jewish is part of an identity expressed more through traditions and culture than through religious practices. Therefore, since the 1990’s, different activities focusing on the cultural and traditional aspects of Judaism have been organized in order to foster a connection with Jewish heritage among children and adults.

The 1990s: The Festival of Foreign Communities

Regina Gaska

The Festival of Foreign Communities is organized annually and is the most important event in the Comodoro Rivadavia calendar. Diverse communities from a variety of national origins and ethnicities participate in the celebration by showcasing their culture through artistic performances and cuisine. The Israeli Association participated in the event from 1992 to 1999. The participation of the Jewish community in the Festival of Foreign Communities had two positive effects. First, more people learned about the Israeli Association, and second, the Festival inspired the creation of a dancing group, a choir, and a musical group, each requiring more dedication to the Association.

Regina Gaska elaborated on the Association's experience with the Festival:

"With the invitation of the foreign collectivities to participate in the fair… it was necessary to prepare a stand [to sell food]; it was necessary to put ourselves in agreement. The first year in the fair we participated solely with a stand... A dancing group of the Israelite Association was created and the following year we participated with the stand and two dancing groups, one with children, and the other one with adults, who danced only for a single year."

The late 1990's: A Radio Program

Since 1999, the current Association president, Gregorio Glinski, and his wife Regina Gaska have had a two-hour radio program about Jewish culture every Saturday morning called Sabbath Shalom.

In the words of Mr. Glinski,

"In this program we try to reflect everything that the community does, and also we chat with people. Not only Jews, but also general members of the community of Comodoro Rivadavia interested in knowing about what we do, call by phone. We narrate the Jewish traditions, Jewish history, the history of Argentine Jews, and the history of Jews from Comodoro. We enjoy it a lot and we like it; it helps us always be connected with the need to study, to learn, [and] to communicate."

Today

Julio Lew

Currently, only 25 families, about 100 people, participate in the Israeli Association’s main activities. Nevertheless, according to Gregorio Glinski, who has searched for Jewish surnames, there are at least 150 families with Jewish surnames in Comodoro Rivadavia. Of the 25 families associated with the Israeli Association, only 10 to 15 families participate each time they organize an activity. Thus, the community is maintained by only a few members, most of whom are either professionals or storeowners.

This small community aims to preserve Judaism by maintaining Jewish tradition, celebrating principal festivities, and organizing youth activities. The adults gather occasionally, but for some, just being Jewish does not warrant gatherings. Many adults who have lived in Comodoro Rivadavia all their lives never received a Jewish education. Moreover, many of them consider themselves atheists or non-believers. They do, however, respect the family traditions associated with Judaism and believe in passing on these customs to younger generations. Also, some non-Jews participate in the activities organized by the Israeli Association due to frequent intermarriage between Jews and gentiles. The question of who can be a member of the Israeli Association thus takes on a new significance. Fernando explained, “Who would be Jewish? ... We do not discriminate against mixed matrimonies… we are really open about it.”

To reflect, what is the goal of this community? Has it changed through the decades? The Israeli Association offers a place for social gathering and occasional ritual ceremonies. The Association resembles a lay social club more than an entity associated with religious practices. What maintains the Association today is common origin, shared history, traditions, and a desire for the preservation of Jewish cultural identity.