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'Where exactly is Montevideo?" asked a friend with a hint of embarrassment at her lack of knowledge of South American geography. She knew that I was preparing to fly to Montevideo to attend the convention of the International Council of Jewish Women, an umbrella organization which has affiliates in 47 countries, including Uruguay.
Uruguay is a small country of just over 3 million wedged between its giant neighbors, Brazil and Argentina. The Jewish community of about 20,000, traditional and Zionist, was thrilled to host a convention of 200 Jewish women from over 27 countries.
As part of the small Israeli delegation I was particularly delighted to travel to this exotic-sounding place, as the convention would be installing an Israeli woman, Leah Aharonov, as the new president, the first Israeli to hold the post in 40 years.
Part of the fun of attending conferences is seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Having lectured in many countries, for me it was was emotionally gratifying to see so many women I admired and respected, from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Georgia, Belgium, Switzerland, France, Netherlands, Canada, the US and the UK.
OF COURSE, the women from South America turned out in large numbers, giving me a chance to try out my shamefully rusty high-school Spanish on friends from Mexico, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina.
The pre-convention kabbalat Shabbat was one of the highlights of the Montevidean experience. Services were led in the convention hotel by the chief rabbi of Uruguay, who loves to sing and charmed us with his homily, which was given in Spanish, Hebrew and English.
A psychiatrist from an old Sephardi Argentinean family, Rabbi Moti Maaravi, is the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Uruguay. Go figure!
Since the chief rabbi had a 60-block walk to his home he was unable to join us for the Shabbat dinner, where our Israeli husbands did us proud with their musical talent. My husband chanted the kiddush and Leah's led us in the Grace After Meals.
Throughout the meal the Israeli table led the group in singing, with a lot of help from several of the women, especially Anna from Split in Croatia. Anna is a camp counselor type who singlehandedly and tirelessly leads her small Jewish community as well as traveling around Bosnia to provide Jewish learning programs for even smaller scattered Jewish communities.
Her enthusiasm and knowledge are infectious so we soon had the whole group joining together for a truly inspiring musical evening.
SHABBAT MORNING many conventioneers walked to a synagogue in the old city, where our participation in the service strengthened the somewhat diminished community, and the two Israeli husbands enriched the prayers with their cantorial skills. They were called on to lead both the morning and musaf services, as well as giving informal talks on the week's Torah portion in Hebrew translated into English.
The local Jewish community was thrilled with the beauty of the chanting; one man informed us that they had never heard such a magnificent service in that synagogue. He would have recorded the davening, he said, had it not been Shabbat.
The gala dinner after Shabbat opened the convention and we were entertained by a tango show performed by talented professional dancers and singers.
Tango dancing originated in the slums of Buenos Aires and the Uruguayan version was lively, dramatic and intricate. After the performance the dancers chose partners from the audience and I had an opportunity to try out my skills with a dashing young man. My childhood ballet lessons helped a bit, but those ballroom dancing sessions at summer camp were more useful. One generous Argentinean friend told me that she thought that I had a future as a tango dancer.
THE CONVENTION did have many serious moments, of course. Our sessions dealt with problems facing Jewish communities worldwide, and Jewish women in particular. Anti-Semitism in Diaspora communities continues to cause serious concern.
An outstanding session included university students who spoke about retaining Jewish tradition and identity on campuses. I screened the Israeli documentary on agunot entitled Mekudeshet, which was followed by a discussion of the problem in Jewish communities worldwide. Many participants were shocked by the portrayal of pain and suffering of young women trapped in non-existent marriages and the failure of the Orthodox establishment to find solutions to their plight.
During another session on tradition the rabbis on the panel were questioned on why agunot were not being freed.
We also expressed our concern on global issues, passing resolutions dealing with the tragic case of refugees in Darfur and the shocking decision by the football association to bring thousands of women to Germany for the World Cup games and set them up in "sex tents." Our objection was also adopted by several non-Jewish women's organizations, who applauded our initiative.
Our evenings were well planned, with entertainment ranging from a concert in the beautiful, marble-lined Uruguayan parliament building, to a performance of Israeli folk dancing by local Jewish youth groups and a speech by the impressive young Israeli ambassador Yoel Barnea, who is a native Spanish speaker, having emigrated from Argentina.
THE FINAL evening, with its festive dinner and inevitable speeches, was the highlight of the convention as women from all over the world uninhibitedly danced and sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs together.
Marta of Bratislava (Slovakia) particularly loves to dance and led all of us with her usual enthusiasm and joy. Hidden talents emerged as Sylvia, a 30-something psychiatrist from Prague, belted out Yiddish songs with amazing skill and energy. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she had been part of a klezmer band as a student. Her Yiddish was impeccable.
Irina from Tbilisi surprised us all with her sweet voice and emotional rendition of flawlessly pronounced Hebrew songs. Hugs and kisses, tears and laughter were abundant as we continued to sing and dance long into the night before making our long journeys home the next morning. Jewish women getting together in Montevideo - it wasn't an everyday event.
The writer, an attorney, is director of the International Jewish Women's Rights Project.