Anachnu: Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz

Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz

LAFAYETTE, California – It has been a quarter century since Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz came to this Northern California community after serving as a rabbi in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But the soon-to-retire senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah has remained intimately involved in Latin America as a leader in the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

In an interview with San Diego Jewish World last week, Graetz spoke about the career in Argentina of Pope Francis; the street children in the big cities of Brazil; and about politics and the situation of the Jews in both countries.

When Graetz left Latin America for the United States in the beginning of the 1990s, Pope Francis was still heading the Jesuit seminary in San Miguel, located in the northwest region of Buenos Aires. The two did not meet because Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the Pope was then known, had not been active in the inter-religious movement nor in opposition to the military government which arrested and executed people without any public trial.  However, Graetz knew Conservative Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Reform Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who both became good friends with Bergoglio when the latter was a bishop.  Bergman, today the environmental minister in the administration of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, still refers to Graetz as “my rabbi,” so, therefore, quipped Graetz, “You could say I am the Pope’s rabbi’s rabbi!”

“I didn’t know the Pope then, but I knew every Catholic in the hierarchy who was involved at all in human rights activities because I was very enmeshed in it for six or seven years in Argentina, and I know what happened to those guys,” Graetz related.  “Whenever a priest or a bishop became involved in human rights activities the church shifted them off to the boondocks in Patagonia or to the north, so they were put out of circulation.”  As for the future Pope: “He was there at the time, but he wasn’t a cardinal yet.  He was the head of a Jesuit seminary, and so he wasn’t very active or involved.  Then the military regime came to an end, and shortly afterwards he was elected the bishop of Buenos Aires and then he was promoted to cardinal.

“When he came out of the seminary, my impression was that he made a tremendous act of teshuvah (repentance),” Rabbi Graetz continued.  “He really realized that he had been absent and so he became super-involved just at the time the Israeli embassy and the AMIA (Associacion Mutual Israelita Argentina) were bombed,” respectively in 1992 and 1994.  “He wanted to be out there as a progressive—ideologically he probably always was.  And then he became a voice for the underprivileged and a voice for inter-religious dialogue.”

During the subsequent administrations of the two Kirchners (Nestor Kirchner from 2003-2007 and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (2007-2015), the estimated 220,000 members of Argentina’s Jewish community were divided over how visible Jews ought to be, according to Graetz.  Hector Timerman, who served as Argentina’s ambassador to the U.S. and later as Argentina’s foreign minister, prompted some members of the Jewish community to fear that there would be anti-Semitic incidents if Timerman’s tenure was too controversial.  “He was the one who made the deal with Iran about stopping the investigation of the AMIA bombing,” in which 85 persons were murdered.  “So much for Jews in government,” said the rabbi caustically.

Now, the Jewish community is equally divided about whether Rabbi Bergman was right to accept the position of Environment Minister under President Macri, who has announced the cancellation of the agreement with Iran.

“But things are quieter in Argentina from what I hear and what I read and certainly the issue of anti-Semitism has toned down,” said Graetz.  He gave as reasons for the reduction in anti-Semitism the waning influence of the Argentine military, and the changing face of Catholic Church in Argentina dating from Pope Francis’s days as the bishop of Buenos Aires.

“The Argentinian Army through the days of the ‘dirty war’ (the era of disappearances of foes of the regime) was trained with Germany military manuals from the Second World War,” Graetz related.  “The military is now out of the picture because it became so discredited not after the military regime but after the Falkland Islands War (of 1982 against Great Britain.)  Thirty Thousand people disappeared and nobody cared about that, but then they lost a war, and that became a big thing.  They’ve been discredited, and now there is a much smaller Army in Argentina and no longer a threat of the Army intervening.”

The Catholic Church meanwhile “is no longer as conservative or as powerful,” said Graetz.  “The evangelical churches have made great advances in Argentina and Brazil too, which took power away from the Catholic Church. The progressive wings of the church started raising their heads, and the clincher for that was the election of Pope Francis, because that for the church in Argentina is a different way of looking at the world.”

“I think those are important factors that have diminished anti-Semitism,” Graetz summarized.  “That which came from the church came way down, and from the military is way down.”

Active in the Hand in Hand Committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, in which North American rabbis extend help and material resources to those in Latin America, Rabbi Graetz was active in the effort to establish a two-year pre-seminary program in Argentina to train Jewish professionals who, should they so choose,  can go on to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem to study for the rabbinate.  He noted that Conservative Rabbi Marshall Meyer had established a seminary during the 1960s, so “in that we are 50 years behind the Conservative movement.”

“Since the Conservative movement is behind us in just about everything else, we will take that,” he smiled.  “I always said that whatever we did, the Conservative movement did 20 years later—the ordination of women and things like that.”

Meanwhile, he said, different branches of Orthodox Judaism has been growing tremendously in Argentina and Brazil, largely due to their outreach.  “If you look at things like Aish HaTorah, they pay you to be Jewish.  In Argentina and Brazil, I know, if you go to cheder, you get paid to go to cheder. So in places where employment is very hard, they are subsidizing you to go and study.  And why not do that, if you get paid? This parallels very much what the Peronist government did in Argentina.  They paid people to put food on their plates and not going to work. ‘We’ll pay you a salary and when we call you to the street, you’ll go to the street.’  So when there are elections in AMIA, they have this feeder group that is very loyal.”

After Graetz was ordained at Hebrew Union College (where Rabbi Emeritus Marty Lawson of Temple Emanu-El in San Diego was a classmate), he was assigned as an assistant rabbi for two years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he met his wife who became mother of their three daughters.  He then went back to Argentina to head a small congregation, and became active in the human rights movement that challenged the military government.  Later, he accepted the position of senior rabbi in Rio de Janeiro.  The first year of his return to Brazil he studied Portuguese intensively with a tutor.  An Argentine can get by with Spanish in Brazil, he said, but once someone becomes the senior pulpit rabbi it is important to speak and write proper Portuguese.

Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz in his Temple Isaiah study

Rabbi Roberto D. Graetz in his Temple Isaiah study

As in Argentina, Graetz devoted considerable time in Brazil to human rights.  In particular, he concerned himself with the plight of the many thousands of  street children, who are sent out by their parents to beg, steal, and sometimes to prostitute themselves to bring home money.

“In many cases the kids were exploited by somebody, and at a certain point, because these kids have ‘street smarts,’ they realize that it is safer for them not to go back home than to go back home,” the rabbi recounted.  “If they have to live on the streets, they might as well live on their own and not be subservient to the abuse or manipulation by whoever the adult is at home.”

Graetz said the situation may be somewhat improved today, explaining that “around Rio and Sao Paulo there has been urbanization of the favelas (slums), so there is more education—not everywhere, not in all of them—and this has reduced a little bit the pressure to get out on the street.”

He said that after the military lost power in Brazil, President Fernando Hernique Cardoso “made great strides in revitalizing the economy.  He was replaced by the more socialist government of (Luiz Inaciio) Lula (da Silva), who continued the policies of the Social Democrats, and for the first time in the history of Latin America there was a closing of the gap between the poor and the rich. But by the second term of Lula, the party politics became so corrupt that much of the money that was being invested in the country to move it forward, started going into the pockets.  When his term was over, the woman who is now the President (Dilma Rouseff) was elected with her greatest claim to fame being that she had been tortured under the military regime.  She is not very capable, and politically a novice, and so the corruption around her continues.”  With investigations of corruption starting to focus on Lula, Rousseff recently named the former president as her chief of staff, thereby giving him immunity.  “The whole thing is such an incredible mess,” said Graetz.  “Brazil had taken off and then went right back to where it was.”

Graetz’s parents had immigrated to Argentina from Germany.  Having had the opportunity to live and work in both Argentina and Brazil, the rabbi said there were some important differences in the experiences of the German Jewish communities of the two countries.

“Argentina was very pro-Nazi, pro-Germany, until the very end when it was clear that Germany would lose the war, and then Argentina joined the Allies.  But the German Jews continued speaking German and I remember that the synagogue in which I grew up, the rabbi was preaching in German until the mid-1950s.  Because Brazil declared very early on for the Allies and sent troops with the Allies, German was the enemy language, so the German Jewish immigrants who went to Brazil very quickly learned Portuguese.  They didn’t want to be identified with the enemy, and so they integrated in a totally different way than did the Argentine Jewish community.  Of course, even when there are no Jews you will find anti-Semites, but anti-Semitism was never a real issue in Brazil.  That made it much easier for the community to assimilate.”

“There was a moment when the community of wealth in Brazil was very small and the Jews were over-represented in that group,” Rabbi Graetz reflected.  “In the meantime wealth in Brazil grew exponentially and the Jews didn’t, so today the presence of Jews in terms of wealth and power and economic interests is lower than it was 30 or 40 years ago.  They are doing well, compared to the rest of the country, but you have the same phenomenon that you have in Argentina.  The young people don’t find work, and this is the drama of the Latin American countries: you go to university and the state educates you.  Then you graduate and you have a degree, so what do you do?  You emigrate.  So today, there is emigration from Brazil, particularly since Portugal has opened its doors to welcome back the Jews of Sephardic ancestry.  I know personally from my German Jewish community some who married into the Sephardic community, a half dozen who have gone back to Portugal.”

Graetz said that about half of the estimated 120,000 Jews who live in Brazil are in Sao Paulo, and a quarter are in Rio de Janeiro.  The other quarter is spread all over Brazil, with one of the most interesting Jewish communities being in Manaus, a city on the Amazon River.  Moroccan Jews who immigrated there over 150 years ago to be in the rubber trade maintained their traditions “and when ethnographers of the Diaspora Museum (in Israel) wanted to study authentic traditions they went to Manaus to study the Moroccan Jews because everywhere else that the Moroccan Jews went their traditions became corrupted by the environment.”

While he served as rabbi in Rio de Janeiro, Graetz visited Manaus periodically to conduct conversions,  perform marriages, and other pastoral duties, “but when I went to their synagogue, I let them do their thing, and I just tried to follow.  In their synagogue, they are traditional, but in their lives they have to be progressive and open.  I was there when an indigenous woman arrived who had made a two-day trip by boat bringing back the body of her husband, who was Jewish.  Everybody had thought the man had simply disappeared.  She was loyal enough to him that she promised he would have a Jewish burial.”

Now planning to retire in May, when he will be succeeded at Temple Isaiah by Rabbi Judy Shanks, who has been his co-rabbi, Graetz is anticipating visiting with his three daughters who live in Los Angeles, Memphis and Atlanta; possibly writing a book about South America; and continuing his work in helping Progressive Judaism to spread in Latin America.  He said that the Commentary on The Torah by the late Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut of Toronto is now being translated into Portuguese.  He anticipates spending some time in South America teaching, and expects to serve as a guest rabbi at several congregations, including one in Buenos Aires for the High Holidays, and another in Puerto Rico for two months.

Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected].  Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and his/her city and state of residence, or city and country for those living outside the United States.

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