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Inside Jewish Chile & Argentina

Shabbat is a universal language — one that transcends oceans, food, and culture — and gently weaves Jewish roots together. I discovered this phenomenon after staffing the JDC Entwine trip Inside Jewish Chile & Argentina. Every year, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles partners with JDC Entwine to offer educational Jewish-themed trips for young adults in their 20s and 30s.

Along with 20 other Angelenos on our 10-day excursion to Chile and Argentina, I visited the cities of Valparaiso, Santiago, and Buenos Aires.

Chile is home to the third-largest Jewish community in South America with a population of around 20,000 people. Jewish families of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic descent have mainly settled in Santiago but also live in cities such as Concepcion and Valparaiso-Vina. The community supports a JCC, two Jewish day schools, and multiple synagogues.

Fun fact: Santiago houses the only all-Jewish firehouse in the world outside of Israel, called Bomba Israel. We had the pleasure of having dinner there and meeting a few local volunteers. We even got to witness an emergency call and see the firefighters in action!

Argentina boasts Latin America’s largest Jewish population with a community of around 241,000 — also the fifth largest in the world today. Argentina’s Jewish history goes back to the 16th century and the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions when Jews fled to Argentina to escape persecution. Most Argentine Jews currently reside in the cities of Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Santa Fe. Jewish groups in Argentina include Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews — 80% of whom are Ashkenazi.

We spent three nights in Chile and five nights in Argentina. Here are some highlights from our journey:

Day 1: Travel day from Los Angeles to Chile
After a 12-hour plane ride, we arrived in Santiago, Chile! And boy was it chilly [45°], as it is winter in South America right now. We took a bus ride to Valparaiso and settled into our ocean-view hotel. We then made our way to a delicious lunch overlooking the beautiful Port. Afterwards, we went on a walking tour of old Valparaiso, rode the tram, walked down cobblestone roads, and took a walking graffiti tour. We then made our way to Sephardic synagogue Max Nordau, the only synagogue in Valparaiso (103 years old). We spoke with local synagogue leaders who told us about the power of community. Participant Shirley Pakdaman asked, “What do your members love about your community?” Celia, the managing director of the synagogue replied, “The community is a family. If you come to Valparaiso, you’re a part of a family.” We ended our time at the synagogue dancing and singing “Siman tov u’mazel tov.”

Day 2: Understanding Community Needs in the Periphery

We started our day with a sightseeing tour of Vina del Mar. We saw community gardens, public art, and lots of beautiful buildings and courtyards. We then headed to a Jewish day school to spend time with kindergarten children and learn about the synagogue and community the Jewish school has cultivated. Though many of the students are not Jewish, the Jewish community is homegrown and filled with heart. After a short bus ride, we went Chilean wine tasting at Vinas Casas del Bosque Winery and enjoyed a delicious lunch. Post-lunch tiredness kicked in and, luckily, we had a two-hour bus ride to Santiago to relax and then had free time in the city before heading to dinner. Our dinner was hosted by Bomba Israel where every firefighter at the station is a volunteer. Bomba Israel believes it is our duty as Jews to step up and save people. We enjoyed an amazing falafel and shawarma dinner accompanied by incredible hospitality and a nightcap of Pisco.

Day 3: Exploring Diverse Community Service
The day began at Mercaz, a large Jewish community center. We toured the gorgeous synagogue space and on-site museum. Over lunch, local young adult Jewish leaders who have built and gave us insight into COFEJJ, their feminist Jewish YA grassroots organization focused on bringing women’s voices to leadership positions. We then went on a guided tour of Santiago and saw the historic landmarks of the city. Then it was back to the hotel where we had our core conversation focused on learning more about JDC’s global work. Executive JDC board member Alejandro Ergas joined us, and we had a Q&A session. We ended the evening with dinner and a mixer with Santiago YA group Lazos.

Day 4: Travel day from Chile to Argentina
We left our hotel in Santiago at 4:00 AM for our flight to Argentina. After arriving to Buenos Aires, we immediately went to AMIA (Agam Memorial & Overview of Jewish Communal Services), an umbrella Jewish organization similar to The Jewish Federation. AMIA experienced Argentina’s largest terrorist attack in 1994 that killed 84 people. We took our time viewing the gorgeous AMIA memorial dedicated to the victims and said the Mourner’s Kaddish. We then went to a kosher BBQ for lunch where we had incredible Argentinian steak. After checking into our hotel, local young adult leaders met us at Hillel Argentina and presented us with their vision and delicious empanadas.

Day 5 & 6 (Shabbat):
On Friday we started our day visiting Ledor Vador, a state-of-the-art senior center that helps address the needs of elderly Jews in the community. The center houses over 320 elders and comes with a wide range of services. While visiting, we met residents of the community and did arts and crafts with them. One memorable resident, 94-year-old Holocaust survivor named Rosita, wisely told us to live our fullest life. Beth School, a private Jewish bilingual day school that focuses on STEM education, was our next stop. We started to bring in Shabbat with the kindergarten class, singing and dancing with them. We then went back to the hotel where we prepared for Shabbat. Our Shabbat committee prepared a meaningful meditation and then we walked to Bet Hillel synagogue, a conservative synagogue, where we participated in Kabbalat Shabbat. The evening culminated with a festive Shabbat dinner. Saturday was our chance to rest and sightsee. Some highlights include visiting one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, leather shops, and the Evita museum. We joined in the late afternoon for a core conversation about cultural differences and reflected on our time in Argentina so far. We closed out Shabbat with a havdalah ceremony and dinner of pizza and empanadas.

Day 7: Understanding Argentinian Culture In & Around Buenos Aires
Our day started with a tour of Buenos Aires Recoleta. We had a chance to see the memorial for the bombing in 1992 on the Israeli Embassy that took the lives of 29 people. We then went to the Recoleta cemetery where we saw Evita Peron’s grave and heard stories of other public figures buried there. We took a bus ride to Club Nautico Hacoaj, an Argentinian Jewish sports club similar to a JCC where families stay for the weekend. The venue was large and filled with hundreds of people. Shopping came next, along with free time. We saw a mate demonstration by our own tour guide Patricia and headed to dinner and a live tango show that fabulously featured tango dancers, musicians, singers, and delicious food. Argentina is filled with people loving life and living it to the fullest.

Day 8:  Taking the Experience Home
After checking out of our hotel, we went sightseeing in Palermo. We saw a beautiful cathedral and went shopping in the San Telmo Artisan/Antique market.
We had lunch at Telmo deli and had our final core conversation that I led, which focused on taking our experience home. We shared meaningful moments from the trip, what we learned, and brainstorming ideas for upcoming events in L.A.

For us, this trip demonstrated the power of community. We are so excited to continue sharing moments from the incredible journey we went on together. On September 26th, our Federation’s young adult initiative, NuRoots, will have an authentic Argentinian dinner paired with wine, empanadas, mate tasting, and tango music. We look forward to extending the joy of our trip!