Latin American Jews suffer lockdown on religion as virus ravages communities
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'Now we have to find God in a different way'

Latin American Jews suffer lockdown on religion as virus ravages communities

Jewish leaders describe delicate balance between government steps to halt COVID-19 and religious observance, even as citizens wait out shutdowns and shortages

  • City workers walk after spraying disinfectant on the streets as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, March 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
    City workers walk after spraying disinfectant on the streets as a preventive measure against the spread of the new coronavirus, in Caracas, Venezuela, Saturday, March 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
  • A cardboard coffin with a body sits on the roof rack of a car before it is taken away to be buried, outside the Teodoro Maldonado Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, April 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Luis Perez)
    A cardboard coffin with a body sits on the roof rack of a car before it is taken away to be buried, outside the Teodoro Maldonado Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Monday, April 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Luis Perez)
  • Workers set up a temporary field hospital to treat patients who have COVID-19 inside Pacaembu stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, March 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
    Workers set up a temporary field hospital to treat patients who have COVID-19 inside Pacaembu stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Monday, March 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
  • Cemetery workers in protective clothing bury a person at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Vila Formosa cemetery, the largest in Latin America, has had a 30 percent increase in the number of burials amid spread of the new coronavirus, according to the cemetery's administration. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
    Cemetery workers in protective clothing bury a person at the Vila Formosa cemetery in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Vila Formosa cemetery, the largest in Latin America, has had a 30 percent increase in the number of burials amid spread of the new coronavirus, according to the cemetery's administration. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Three members of an Orthodox Jewish community in Buenos Aires were arrested on March 22 after allegedly using a ritual bath, or mikvah. The practice of ritual purification was in violation of a nationwide quarantine enacted as a measure against the spread of the coronavirus. It’s just one example of tension that has arisen between Jewish religious traditions and secular governmental responses to COVID-19 throughout Latin America.

The three individuals, who included a rabbi, were from the Orthodox Ajdut Israel congregation. The Argentine government later walked back its stance and lifted the ban on ritual immersion.

Alejandro Avruj, a Conservative rabbi in Buenos Aires who is the president of the Masorti-affiliated Latin American Rabbinic Assembly, said the arrests were “embarrassing” to the greater Jewish community. Although Avruj called the Orthodox movement “our brothers,” he said that “they do not care about the situation, about the law.”

“They still want to go to the mikvah, join for the minyan [prayer quorum],” said Avruj, who is the spiritual leader of the Amijai congregation. “I think we have to [now] find God in an absolutely different kind of way.”

Argentine police raid a mikvah in the northern part of Buenos Aires, March 22, 2020. (Screen shot from YouTube/ via JTA)

“Now we have to rethink ourselves, our community,” Avruj said. “We have to find God in the hands of the volunteers who give their time, their health, to help other people, and in the hands of the scientists and medical people working to stop the pandemic.”

The country’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Gabriel Davidovich, did not respond to an email inquiry from The Times of Israel about the incident.

Rabbi Alejandro Avruj from Argentina. (Courtesy)

COVID-19 has upended Jewish life throughout the mainly Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking region of Latin America. Congregations have closed and communities are now offering online courses and, depending on denomination, virtual worship.

“In many cases, there are similar approaches,” said Sergio Widder, Latin America regional director for the Joint Distribution Committee. Widder said that even in countries not currently under lockdown, Jewish communities have “canceled events and closed activities, keeping [social] services for the most vulnerable [with] some sort of delivery of services and goods.”

“It’s a moment when you have to think, plan and act at the same time, which makes it very challenging,” said Widder, whose organization is among those assisting communities across the region. “So far, what we see is that the communities are managing the situation. The concern is how they will evolve if the emergency lasts significantly. We don’t know if it will last one, three, six months. Therefore we have to do things step by step.”

Argentina

Argentina is home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America. Approximately half of the region’s roughly 470,000 Jews live there, mostly in Buenos Aires and its metropolitan area. The Argentine Jewish population represents the eighth-largest in the world.

When the coronavirus reached Israel, it affected visiting Argentine Jews, including students at a Jerusalem seminary who were there through a program run by the Orthodox Union youth outreach wing NCSY.

Martin Leibovich of Argentina, right, with Rabbi Michael Bengio from Chile. (Courtesy)

Martin Leibovich, a rabbi who heads the Argentina NCSY chapter, said that all of the students affiliated with this program had to come back home and that a few had the virus. Leibovich added that the virus was also brought back by “many other students at yeshivas and others,” including members of the frum, or observant, community.

Widder said that Jewish communities were in a “very bad situation in Argentina prior to COVID-19” due to a national depression in 2018-2019. There is a more dire forecast for this year: “It’s going to be even worse than initially projected due to the COVID-19 effect,” he said.

Overall, there were 2,960 positive coronavirus cases and 136 deaths in Argentina as of April 21 according to the World Health Organization. The first Jew in Argentina to die from the coronavirus was Ruben Bercovich, a prominent community member from the Chaco province. He was cremated in a decision that was in accordance with new government restrictions — but at odds with Jewish burial traditions.

Brazil

The largest Latin American nation, Brazil, also has the region’s largest overall numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths — 38,654 and 2,462, respectively.

Brazil is home of the second-largest Jewish population in Latin America and the 10th-largest in the world. Fernando Lottenberg, the president of the Jewish community umbrella organization CONIB, declined to comment about the coronavirus response of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, left, greets his outgoing Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Health Minister Nelson Teich, not in picture, at Planalto palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, April 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Andre Borges)

On April 17 Bolsonaro replaced former health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta with Nelson Teich, who has announced plans to double coronavirus testing and scale down social isolation guidelines. Bolsonaro has consistently played down the threat of the coronavirus, and panned Mandetta’s social isolation policy as bad for the economy.

Jewish community president Lottenberg said that speaking with his 81-year-old cousin, his relative said the current virus outbreak in Brazil paralleled World War II, when residents had to hunker down in fear of a German air raid.

Fernando Lottenberg of Brazil. (Courtesy)

Lottenberg is based in the city of Sao Paulo, capital of an eponymous state now under lockdown. In the normally bustling city, he said, “there are no cars, the main avenues are deserted. It’s similar with bars and restaurants, they’re closed … It’s very sad.”

Lottenberg praised a Jewish community mainstay that’s stayed open: the Albert Einstein Israelite Hospital in Sao Paulo.

“It’s one of the most advanced in technology, care of people,” he said. “I think the hospital is kind of a paradigm now for the whole of Brazil. It’s helping the government with tests, supervising emergency hospitals being built in soccer stadiums. It’s been a leading force.” And, he said, it is “providing a good image of the Jewish community.”

Mexico

Mexico recently instituted a national lockdown, joining other Latin American countries that had previously done so. There are currently 8,261 confirmed cases and 686 deaths in Mexico.

As of mid-April, there were 87 cases within the Mexican Jewish community, according to Renee Dayan Shabot, a board member of the community’s governing institution, the Central Committee. The Mexican Jewish community numbers between 45,000 and 50,000 people. The community has set up an information hotline as well as a website for people physically affected by the coronavirus, including those displaying symptoms, those who had been in contact with someone who has tested positive, or who tested positive themselves.

Renee Dayan Shabot of Mexico. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, the pandemic is exacerbating the situation at the US-Mexico border.

“Asylum seekers have been very much affected [by the coronavirus crisis],” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute of Latino and Latin American Affairs. “They stay in Mexico, in the north and south, because of United States law. You cannot just ignore and forget about them.”

Siegel Vann said that the AJC is “calling on the US to continue processing these refugees… We think that to close the borders would be very unfortunate, with really dire consequences.”

Ecuador

Another humanitarian crisis is taking place in Ecuador, which has 10,128 confirmed coronavirus cases and 507 deaths. A recent New York Times article described bodies remaining on city sidewalks, and shrimp and banana packaging companies repurposed to make cardboard coffins.

Siegel Vann wrote in an email that she is in contact with the Jewish community of Ecuador, which is an AJC partner. “The problem is mostly in Guayaquil, which has a very small [Jewish] community,” she explained. “Most of the 700 Ecuadoran Jews live in [the capital,] Quito. The community has put its contingency plan in motion and is providing support to its members. It’s also in touch with the government of Ecuador, as we are, to support their efforts at mitigating the crisis.”

Dina Siegel Vann of the American Jewish Committee. (Courtesy)

Colombia

Within Colombia overall, there have been 3,792 confirmed cases and 179 deaths.

Marcos Peckel of Colombia. (Courtesy)

Marcos Peckel, director of the Jewish community of Colombia, said that “well before the crisis,” the community was assembling an emergency response team, although the crises it had in mind were earthquakes and terrorism.

Peckel said that in Colombian Jewish history, there has been “nothing similar whatsoever” to the current situation. He did cite the Passover Seders of April 1970, which were interrupted when Colombia’s then-president imposed a curfew during a civil war. “It’s a very important part of our collective memory,” he said, recalling experiencing it himself as a boy.

Chile

Chile has 10,507 confirmed cases and 139 deaths. Orthodox Rabbi Michael Bengio, who heads the Chilean chapter of the NCSY, said that his country has been challenged twice before in recent history — with an earthquake in 2010, then with demonstrations beginning last year.

Bengio called the earthquake “a scary time in most areas of Chile,” but noted that “right afterward, most of the country started working.” He said that the current crisis is “very different.” He needs to wear a mask and gloves even when using the elevator of his building. During the protests that began in mid-October, there were times when he could not go out because of a curfew, which he said is similar to today.

Costa Rica

There have been 660 confirmed cases and five deaths within Costa Rica. Reform Rabbi David Laor of the B’nai Israel congregation in San Jose said that the capital city remains bustling, including spectators for the first-ever El Al flight to Costa Rica. It arrived to airlift Israeli expats across Central America back home.

Rabbi David Laor from Costa Rica. (Courtesy)

After Costa Rican synagogues were closed, Laor has begun teaching and leading worship online. One class is attracting hundreds of non-Jews — a course on Jewish history for descendants of Sephardim who were forcibly converted to Christianity during the 16th-century Inquisition and hid their ancestral faith in the New World. Some are interested in converting to Judaism.

The rabbi described his congregation in words that might be apt for Latin American Jewish communities in general.

“We’re closed, at home, but we are functioning together,” he said.

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