Standing with AMIA on the Fast of Av

The destruction of the Temple brought with it exile not only from our land and centralized place of worship, but from one another. We have done little to rectify this situation.

By MIKEY STEIN
August 12, 2019 19:37
Standing with AMIA on the Fast of Av

MEMBERS OF THE Argentinean Jewish community in Buenos Aires hold up pictures of the victims of the AMIA Jewish center bombing, during a ceremony in 2015 to mark the 21th anniversary of the 1994 attack. (photo credit: ENRIQUE MARCARIAN / REUTERS)

This past Sunday, many in the Jewish community observed the fast of the 9th of Av, the traditional day of national Jewish mourning. Many tragedies are said to have befallen the Jewish people during the Jewish month of Av, the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem being foremost among them. Yet this destruction continued to resonate, seismic waves of pain cresting every few generations with another tragedy for the Jewish people and the World, always on or around the 9th or 10th of Av.

One of the most recent examples of this phenomenon is the bombing of the AMIA building, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, on July 18th, 1994 (the 10th of Av in the Jewish year of 5754). The bombing resulted in the loss of 85 lives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and the injuring of hundreds of innocent Argentinians.

Though it is now known that Hezbollah, an Iran-sponsored terrorist group, was responsible for the attack, in 25 years, no Argentinian government has brought any of the perpetrators to justice. In fact, many administrations have actively sought to scuttle investigations into the bombing, in order to protect political arrangements and, it is widely believed, government officials who may have allowed or helped the bombing to occur. But in addition to these unconscionable active attempts to obscure the truth, the Argentinian Jewish community has also had to endure passive disregard and apathy. Not from their government, but from the North American Jewish community.

A few weeks ago, I found myself accompanying Rabbi Avi Weiss to Buenos Aires for the 25th commemoration of the bombing. Rabbi Weiss first traveled to Buenos Aires in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 bombing. Since that first visit, he has continued to support the Jewish community there, and to advocate to the government on their behalf. During our four-day whirlwind in Buenos Aires, we slept little and rarely stood still. From morning until evening, we met with families of victims, different representatives of the Jewish community, young Jewish leaders, and a variety of government officials. We attended memorial services at different synagogues, with different denominational affiliations, in and around Buenos Aires. We visited Yeshivas and Rabbinical Seminaries, and gave interviews to numerous media outlets.

On July 18th, we stood together with our Jewish brothers and sisters at the official commemoration and memorial service outside the rebuilt AMIA building in the heart of Buenos Aires. Before heading to the airport to return home, we danced outside the Casa Rosada, the executive mansion of the President of Argentina, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Jewish People live”).

Out of all the powerful moments during our visit, this last moment remains, in many ways, the most indelible and the most challenging. In my experience, that song has always existed as a response to an external threat to our survival, to our life as people and as a people. “We, the Jewish people, are still here, and we are not going anywhere. As alive as ever.” In that moment outside the Casa Rosada, however, I did not feel that I was responding to an external threat to our peoplehood, one that sought our collective end through direct attacks upon us. Rather, I felt myself responding to an internal threat to our peoplehood, one that allows our national collective bonds to disintegrate through not-so-benign neglect.

When the AMIA was attacked, I was nine years old, and yet I cannot recall hearing or learning anything about it until I was in Rabbinical School, about 15 years later. In all my years of Jewish day school and involvement in Jewish communities, the word AMIA was never mentioned. I had never attended a memorial service or even knew that such services existed. When I learned about the tragedy as a Rabbi in training, I am embarrassed to say that my response was the equivalent of a pathetic shrug. It did not seem relevant to me. Four years ago, when I visited Argentina on vacation with my wife, our Jewish tour guide showed us the AMIA building, and told us the story of the bombing and the betrayals of the government. I returned to New York from that vacation better informed, but unchanged in my perspective. Despite knowing intellectually about AMIA, it made little emotional impact upon me.

I am not alone in this regard. While some communities in North America took steps to mark the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, from what I can tell, most of these events seem to have been sparsely attended. During the time that Rabbi Weiss and I were at the memorial in Buenos Aires, where thousands packed the streets, there was a grand total of 10 people protesting outside the Argentinian embassy in New York.

The Jewish community of Argentina, especially that of Buenos Aires, has a storied history and a vibrant present. Argentina has the 6th largest Jewish population out of any country in the World, and the largest in all of Latin America. Much like American Jews, Argentinian Jews experience more anti-Israel sentiment than they do antisemitism. Unlike many European Jews, the Argentinian Jews we spoke to do not live in fear of their neighbors and had no wish to leave their communities. With the many different Jewish schools, synagogues, rabbinical seminaries, and, of course, the many excellent Kosher restaurants and steakhouses, Jewish culture and religion seem to be thriving in Argentina.

Yet North American Jewry remains strangely distant from Argentinian Jewry. Given our historically unprecedented success here, we North American Jews often have trouble seeing past ourselves. When we manage to do so, we tend to look only Eastward, towards Israel and Europe, while neglecting our brethren to the South. We forfeit the right to sing “Am Yisrael Chai,” so long as this is the case. We forfeit the right to mark the Fast of Av so long as we forget what we mourn.

The destruction of the Temple brought with it exile not only from our land and centralized place of worship, but from one another. We have done little to rectify this situation. Where are the school, community, and Jewish organizational trips to Argentina? Why aren’t we working harder to bring scholars-in-residence and Jewish leaders from Buenos Aires into our communities? The situation cannot remain as is. As long as we fail to show up for one another throughout the year, as long as we fail to be the People of Israel, we will continue to stand alone in the month of Av, suffering in isolation during the times when we Jews most need one another.

Rabbi Mikey Stein is a member of the Limudei Qodesh faculty at the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in New York City.


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