A Latin American Powerhouse for the 21st Century

In the last 50 years, Argentina’s Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer has trained scores of rabbis and invigorated prayer, music, and social action in the Jewish world.

by Rabbi Dr. Richard A. Freund

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At the first ordination of the Seminario in Buenos Aires, 1972

In August 1959, a 29-year-old recent graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, arrived in Buenos Aires with his wife, Naomi, to serve as assistant to Rabbi Guillermo Schlesinger, leader of the prominent Congregacion Israelita of the Argentine Republic, or CIRA.

Post-World War II Argentina, like most of Latin America, was filled with Jews who had either come in the 19th and early 20th century from Europe or were displaced persons who had sought refuge after the Holocaust. By 1950, the Jews of Latin America were segmented, with secularists, Yiddishists, socialists, and Orthodox-styled sectarians.

The previous year, Schlesinger, determined to create a seminary for Latin American Jewry, had convened a group of international Jewish lay leaders and clergy, including prominent people from Latin America, North America and Europe. Called the First Consultative Convention of Latin American Synagogues, the gathering concluded with two recommendations: to create a new Latin American religious identity for young Latin American Jews and to create a rabbinical seminary. Meyer’s arrival in Argentina was supposed to help implement these two recommendations.

Meyer, who went on to become an internationally renowned advocate for human rights, believed it was necessary to create one, modern, Latin American Judaism that would be meaningful to all Jews and intelligible to their non-Jewish neighbors. In his first few years in Argentina, he tried to replicate the Conservative religious revolution that had evolved over nearly 100 years in the United States, starting with youth movements and camping. The Ramah-style camp he opened in January 1960 (which is summer in the southern hemisphere) had 49 campers and was an unqualified success. The following Ramah seasons produced a core group of young leaders for the budding Conservative movement in Latin America.

The CIRA convened another convention in December 1961 to create a pre-rabbinical seminary in Buenos Aires. The term “pre-rabbinical” was used so as not to compete with programs in the United States. On July 1, 1962, a Seminario at the CIRA was inaugurated by North and South American Rabbis Israel Goldstein, Seymour Siegel, Guillermo Schlesinger, Fritz Winter, and Marshall Meyer.

A year later the Seminario was an independent institution. Early on Meyer had realized that he wanted to create a new type of congregation and independent seminary. So in 1963, with a small group of followers, he established a laboratory-synagogue (called comunidad in Spanish) in an apartment in a Buenos Aires suburb and simultaneously created an independent pre-rabbinical seminario for the training of Latin American rabbis for these comunidades. It was the same staff and students as the CIRA school, under the same sponsorship of the World Council of Synagogues, which was the predecessor of the Masorti movement, in a new location and with a new framework.

Rabbi Meyer and a small cadre of rabbis and scholars produced an innovative Spanish translation of the siddur for use in these comunidades and for study in the Seminario (based on United Synagogue’s 1940 siddur edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman). They also founded a Spanish-language Jewish research journal (Majshavot/Pensamientos), and entered into an agreement to publish some of the greatest modern Jewish writers in Spanish. The modern Seminario and new comunidad, along with the theologically relevant translation of the siddur and research in Spanish, were the pillars on which Meyer’s vision succeeded.

In October 2013, the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer began celebrating its 50th anniversary in Buenos Aires. And while the number of Latin American Jews has dropped to less than 400,000 (from a high of nearly 750,000 in the 1960s) the significance of the Seminario has only grown over the last half century.

The Seminario serves a community that stretches from Mexico to the southern tip of Argentina and is the only modern rabbinical and educators’ seminary in Latin America, teaching Bible, Talmud and halachah, as well as theology,  philosophy, history, liturgy, and pastoral counseling for Spanish and Portuguese speakers. It serves congregations of diverse ideologies and backgrounds. It is the Masorti movement’s hub in Latin America for liturgy, law, and inter-religious dialogue, with a beit din, mikveh, chaplaincy programs, teachers’ institute, music school, and programs for training youth leaders.

One of the school’s many accomplishments has been musical; by incorporating tango, samba and jazz into the classical liturgy, it continues to ignite the interest of young Latin American Jews. (And when Meyer became spiritual leader of New York City’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, his musical innovations continued to attract young Jews.) For the half billion non-Jewish Spanish and Portuguese speakers in 23 countries, the Seminario’s information about Judaism is essential.

The Seminario’s 96 ordained rabbis, including ten women, have served congregations in just about every country in Latin America, as well as in the United States, Spain, France, and Israel. It is hard to quantify the significance of Marshall Meyer’s legacy in Latin America, or for that matter, for world Jewry. But the Seminario’s graduates still follow his model of using the rabbinate as a transformative agent in society. It is said by Argentines that he rescued Latin American Judaism twice, first by creating the religious movement embodied by the Seminario in the 1960s and then again in the early ‘70s with his theology that encouraged Latin American baby boomers to see why religion was still relevant to their lives. He translated the values of Judaism into a human rights movement that gave people the courage to stand up for their rights and helped bring down the repressive military government.

Fifty years after Marshal Meyer opened the doors of the apartment in Buenos Aires, the Seminario, named in his honor, stands with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, and Schechter Institute in Israel in defining Conservative Judaism for the 21st century. It is an institution that includes the voices of men and women from around the world, praying and working on behalf of social justice in every country and place, even in places where there are no Jews.

Rabbi Dr. Richard A. Freund is the Maurice Greenberg Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Maurice Greenberg center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. He directed the Seminario from 1984 to 1986.