Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions

Living Edition
| Editors: Henri Gooren

Latin American Conservative or Masorti Movement

  • Valeria Cababié-SchindlerEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08956-0_333-1
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Keywords

Judaism Conservative Judaism Latin America 

Definition

The Conservative or Masorti (“traditional” in Hebrew) movement is one of the three main denominations within Judaism, one which seeks a balance between tradition and modernization, understanding that times change, but that in adapting to those changes, people need to also preserve Jewish tradition. The Conservative or Masorti Judaism recognizes that the Jewish law or Halakhah must be followed through methods that have been established historically by rabbis; however, it also teaches that the law could be adapted in order to preserve the spirit and essence of Judaism. This opposes the Reform movement’s belief that the Halakhah is not binding and instead emphasizing the ethical purpose of Judaism over ritual practices, and it differs from the Orthodox movement’s idea that one must strictly adhere to the Halakhah.

Introduction

The Conservative movement is considered to have evolved from the ideology of German rabbi, Zacharias Frankel, who in 1845 broke with his more radical colleagues at the Rabbinical Conference of Frankfurt (Reform Judaism) over the issue of retaining Hebrew as the language of prayer. As the movement started to expand worldwide, new organizations and institutions were established in different countries of the world. In 1886, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) was established in New York City as a prestigious center for Jewish learning and education, ordaining rabbis and cantors and training scholars and educators. In 1901, the Rabbinical Assembly was established by graduates from the JTS in order to strengthen the Conservative/Masorti movement and to support rabbis, nowadays building bridges between Conservative rabbis and congregations throughout the world and providing services to congregations looking for rabbis and vice versa. By 1972, the Rabbinical Assembly formed its first committee on Jewish law in which Conservative rabbis are consulted by peers and congregations on different issues with Jewish law. In 1947 the JTS established its West Coast branch, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and in 1957 the World Council for Conservative Synagogues was established to extend the Conservative vision to the world, focusing mainly on congregations outside Israel and the United States. The Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (the “Seminario”) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, opened its doors in 1962, and in 1979 the Masorti movement was established in Israel. The Seminario is the only institution that trains Latin American rabbis in Latin America, as well as cantors and educators. The Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean (the “UJCL”) was established in 1998 striving to preserve the continuity of Judaism in the region and to provide support to small congregations of the region, especially those in the Caribbean. The UJCL affirms the freedom to provide a pluralistic and an inclusive idea of Judaism in the region, and because progressive Judaism has grown significantly in the past decades – where before Orthodox organizations were the only option – it became extremely important for Central America and the Caribbean. Today the UJCL promotes communication and contact among the small Jewish communities in the Caribbean as well as connecting them with larger communities in Mexico and Panama. Even though the UJCL provides support mostly to small Reform congregations in the region, it is important to note that many of these congregations are led by Conservative rabbis, some from Latin America and some from the United States.

Judaism in Latin America

Judaism has been present in Latin America since its conquest, when Jews and conversos (Jews converted to Christianity that secretly continued their Jewish tradition) escaped from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and settled in different countries; however, they were not a significant community except in Curacao, Brazil, and for a brief time, Peru. Contemporary Latin American Jews are a product of nineteenth and twentieth century migrations. Between 1880 and 1914, all Latin American countries received both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. During the twentieth century, Latin America received a large wave of immigrants escaping the world wars and in particular the Nazi regime. In their new homelands, these immigrants were faced with the region’s diverse economies and cultures, and because most of these societies were predominantly Catholic, Jews remained as outsiders. In order to retain their own ethnic identities, Jews congregated and lived in closed communities.

Religiosity was not a main concern for early immigrants; despite certain exceptions, they “tended to be irreligious or antireligious in orientation” (Elkin 1987). Their main concern was settling into their new countries, and in order to do so, Jews first created institutions that were necessary to carry out more practical tasks, such as the Chevrah Kadisha (burial sites), Hebrew Day Schools, Zionist Youth Organizations, and Jewish Community Centers for social and athletic activities. However, when they did face the task of establishing religious organizations, they brought Orthodox rabbis from abroad and established Orthodox congregations. Orthodox synagogues were the only religious congregational establishments until the late 1930s and were characterized by a “closed” mentality, in the sense that no innovations were incorporated into religious rituals and customs. By 1967 most of Latin American Jewish communities professed Orthodoxy. The establishment of the Conservative movement was driven by the newly born Latin American generations in an attempt to make Judaism more appealing and accessible to everyone. The founding of the Seminario in Buenos Aires represented the “official entrance” of the Conservative movement in the region.

Beginnings of the Conservative Movement in Latin America

The story of the Conservative movement in Latin America goes as far back as 1862, “when two lonely Alsatian Jews, praying in a park in Buenos Aires, promised themselves that by the following Yom Kippur (Day of atonement), they would daven (pray) in their own synagogue” (Bronstein 2000). Years later, the first Conservative synagogue, the Congregación Israelita de la República Argentina (the “CIRA”), also known as Templo de Libertad, was created. In 1959, the late Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, a New Yorker ordained at the JTS in 1958, arrived in Buenos Aires to serve as the assistant rabbi at CIRA. Through him and his charismatic personality, Latin American Jews started to learn about Conservative Judaism. Religious services were not just systematic and formal, but included melodies and prayers appealing to everybody. In 1963 he founded Comunidad Bet-El, which within a few years became a model for Conservative congregations in Latin America. His approach to Judaism was different and one in which included youth, social activism, and interreligious dialogue; therefore new alternative model for a rabbi and Judaism emerged. According to Elkin, the Seminario “[r]eversed the obsolescence of Jewish tradition as practice in Latin America by training a generation of young women and men to assume leadership roles in their communities” (Elkin 1998, 172). In its beginnings it served as pre-seminary for rabbis; they could begin their studies there but needed to finish them in the United States or Israel to receive their ordinations. Later, an increased budget and the establishment of an academic staff made possible ordinations of Spanish-speaking rabbis at the Seminario. In order to become a Conservative rabbi, students were required to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. The board of the Seminario believed that “[i]f a revival of Jewish spiritual way [had] to happen in Latin America, it [could] only be achieved through a rabbinate that [was] in contact with both secular modern thinking, as well as with classical sources of Jewish thought and belief” (Meyer, 188).

The Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano

In 1962, Marshall T. Meyer founded the Seminario which today holds his name in blessed memory and quotes as its motto the Prophet Isaiah, “atem aydai,” meaning “[y]ou are My Witnesses” (Szteinhendler 2000). Associated with the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York City, the Seminario presented an opportunity to remove barriers and offer alternative ideas to the Orthodox community of that time in Argentina. However, its function was, and still is, not limited to ordinations; it offers courses in Jewish education (including a Jewish teaching degree), primary education, conversion, non-formal education, youth leadership, and liturgical singing. Moreover, hundreds of schools, clubs, libraries, and cultural centers which were once heavily secular have been influenced by the Seminario.

Many changes were implemented through the Seminario in the Latin American Conservative movement. One of the biggest fears faced by the Conservative community in Latin America is assimilation, especially of young people, through intermarriage and indifference. As an attempt to reverse this trend, Rabbi Meyer instituted a process of conversion, similar to that in the United States, which encouraged the formation of new Jewish families. Conservative synagogues are nowadays filled with young families and children, and women enjoy equal participation in congregational life and liturgy. Prayer books started to get translated into Spanish and Latin. American Jewish scholars started to publish their work in “Machshavot,” a journal published by the institution.

The Seminario became the academic, cultural, and religious center of the Conservative Jewish movement (Masorti) in Argentina and Latin America, whose main goal was to train and ordain rabbis to spread and perpetuate Judaism in Latin American communities. Moreover, reflecting the changes in other institutions of the Conservative world, such as the JTS, the Seminario started to train women as rabbis. The first ordination of a Latin American woman rabbi took place at the Seminario in 1994. As of 2014, a total of 10 Latin American women have been ordained at the Seminario and currently serve in communities of Latin America, the United States, and Israel (Table 1).
Table 1

Placement of rabbis ordained at the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano

Country

Rabbis

Country

Rabbis

Argentina

32

Israel

8

Aruba

1

Mexico

4

Brazil

8

Panama

1

Canada

2

Paraguay

1

Chile

7

Peru

1

Colombia

1

United States

18

Costa Rica

1

Uruguay

1

Ecuador

1

 

Source: Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano and Union of Jewish Congregations of Latin America and the Caribbean

Notwithstanding the Seminario’s unequivocal influence throughout Latin America, it is worth noting that not all Conservative congregations in Latin America follow the model set by Conservative congregations in Buenos Aires. Despite following the same model of equality, in practice, some congregations are more traditional than others. For example, according to Conservative rabbis’ interpretations of the Jewish law, women are allowed to read from the Torah; however, some Conservative congregations in Latin America are more “traditionalist,” and women are not allowed at the pulpit. Nevertheless, mixed gender seating is accepted at most Conservative synagogues in Latin America (Table 2).
Table 2

Conservative/Masorti congregations in Latin America

Country

Congregations

Country

Congregations

Argentina

40

Mexico

4

Aruba

1

Panama

1

Bolivia

1

Paraguay

1

Brazil

10

Peru

1

Chile

7

Dominican Republic

1

Colombia

3

Uruguay

1

Costa Rica

1

 

Cuba

8

 

Ecuador

1

 

El Salvador

1

 

Honduras

1

 

Source: Masorti Olami and UJCL

The Latin American Masorti movement has faced many challenges in the past decades. Due to economic and political crisis in different countries of the region, many Jews, including young families, are fleeing their country of origin looking for better opportunities in other countries, mainly in Israel and the United States. Many Conservative congregations in Latin America did not have the economic means to sustain themselves and disappeared, and some others had to merge in order to survive the crisis. Nevertheless, Conservative communal life in Latin America continues to flourish. In times where identity is important, Latin American Conservative Jews are able to find a way of living a Jewish life that is compatible with their Latin American identity.

Cross-References

References

  1. Bronstein G (2000) Reaching out in South America. In: Fierstien R (ed) A century of commitment: one hundred years of the Rabbinical Assembly. The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, pp 238–240Google Scholar
  2. Elkin J (1987) The evolution of Latin American-Jewish Communities: retrospect and prospect. In: Elkin J, Merkx G (eds) The Jewish presence in Latin America. Allen & Unwin, Boston, pp 309–323Google Scholar
  3. Elkin JL (1998) The Jews of latin America. Holmes & Meier Publishers, NYGoogle Scholar
  4. Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano (n.d.) Oct 2015. www.seminariorabinico.org
  5. Szteinhendler S (2000) The Rabbinical Assembly in Latin America. In: Fierstien R (ed) A century of commitment: one hundred years of the Rabbinical Assembly. The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, pp 234–238Google Scholar
  6. Union of Jewish Congregation of Latin American and Caribbean (n.d.) Oct 2015. www.ujcl.org

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Religious StudiesFlorida International UniversityMiamiUSA