Remembering and moving forward — AMIA in Argentina

by | Feb 22, 2016 | Other News

Mission co-chair David Cohen (far left) walks around the Agam Sculpture in the heavily fortified courtyard of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. On the far wall in the photo is a plaque listing the names of the 1994 bombing victims. Co-chair Charlene Cohen (far right), along with Ilana Benson and Maggie Erickson, looks at the sculpture from another perspective.

Mission co-chair David Cohen (far left) walks around the Agam Sculpture in the heavily fortified courtyard of the AMIA building in Buenos Aires. On the far wall in the photo is a plaque listing the names of the 1994 bombing victims. Co-chair Charlene Cohen (far right), along with Ilana Benson and Maggie Erickson, looks at the sculpture from another perspective.

Sixteen members of the Tidewater Jewish community recently returned from a mission to the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Sponsored by the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, the mission allowed local donors to “follow their campaign dollars” to one of the many overseas communities served by Tidewater’s Annual Campaign.
This is the second in a series of “Postcards” from the mission, highlighting some of the most impactful experiences.

Another stop along the complex road that tells the often contradictory story of the Jewish community of Argentina was the site of the “new” AMIA building. To call it a building is a bit of an understatement. Today’s AMIA building is more of a compound, with understandable layers of security protecting it from would-be enemies at its gates.

AMIA is an acronym for Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, which translates to Argentine Israelite Mutual Association. Established in 1894, its mission was to promote and preserve Jewish life in Argentina and to secure the continuity and values of the Jewish community. By 1950, AMIA became the headquarters of the Federation of Jewish Argentine Communities. Over time, it became the center of the Jewish community, providing and sponsoring formal and informal education programs, cultural and recreational activities, and a health care cooperative.

As the group was escorted into the courtyard, it encountered a massive and colorful kinetic sculpture by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam. Impressive for its size and apparent whimsy, the installation at first seems at odds with the somber walls and plaques that surround it memorializing those whose lives were lost or forever changed on July 18, 1994. On that day, a Hezbollah suicide bomber drove his van, loaded with 600 lbs of an ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil explosive mixture (similar to that used in the Oklahoma City bombing nine months later) into the AMIA building in a densely constructed commercial area of Buenos Aires. The blast destroyed the building, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. The community had been in the midst of celebrating AMIA’s Centennial anniversary.

Like the Israel Embassy bombing of two years’ prior, the AMIA bombing was never solved, and not one person has ever been held accountable.

The re-built and fortified AMIA building re-opened in 1999. Today it houses many of the same kinds of organizations and institutions as those which reside on Tidewater’s own Sandler Family Campus. It also houses the local offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Israel Embassy.

The Agam sculpture greets arriving visitors and it stands as a monument to the victims of the bombing. According to the AMIA curator, “It is a visual prayer that becomes a symbol against terrorism and a permanent expression of the Jewish people’s struggle for truth, justice, and peace.” The sculpture also “bears witness to the reconstruction of the Argentine Jewish community.” While moving around the installation, colors and shapes turn into changing images which symbolize the innate ability of humans to cope with and adapt to life’s inevitable changes…a fitting tribute to the Argentine Jewish community.

The group next made its way to the JAFI offices, where it was welcomed by Gaby Glazman, the Jewish Agency Emissary. The Jewish Agency is hard at work in Argentina, providing Israel education programs for all ages and offering Israel Experience Opportunities for those seeking to make aliyah, and for those wishing to learn more about Israel. Three young adults introduced the group to the JAFI programs they’d recently experienced and shared their personal stories. The first young lady spoke about her experience on Taglit-Birthright Israel. Birthright is the Jewish Agency’s “introductory” Israel experience program. Ten days in duration, Birthright is designed to give college students a “taste” of the Jewish State and to inspire them to make personal connections with the Land and the People of Israel. The young lady’s story was reminiscent of stories that many in the group had heard from their own children or friends’ children who’d experienced Birthright programs. Her description re-confirmed how impactful those 10 days in Israel can be for students experiencing it with their peers. Anxious and enthusiastic to return to Israel, she cannot wait for the opportunity and already has her eye on a number of JAFI programs that can help her get there.

The next young woman spoke about her very recent (she’d only returned to Argentina the prior week!) Onward Israel experience. A college graduate in the job market, she explained how her 10 weeks in Israel were incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Along with several of her Onward peers, she was considering making aliyah and looking for a job in Tel Aviv. The Jewish Agency created Onward Israel so that graduates of Taglit-Birthright and other peer-trip programs in Israel could spend a longer period of time (six to 10 weeks) in Israel, building their resumes and getting to know the Jewish state in a deeper way. Onward offers internships, service-learning, academic study, and fellowships, in cooperation with Jewish organizations and communities overseas. Participants in this program come from the same community or organization, allowing them to create local networks and maintain connections after the program. The Onward alum spoke so well and so eloquently of the program that several in the group suggested JAFI hire her on the spot!

The last young person to address the group spoke about his JAFI Masa experience. Officially named the Masa Israel Journey, this program offers an even longer- term experience in Israel (between five and 12 months) allowing participants to seek and find a learning and service program most relevant to them. Some enroll in Masa as a gap year program; others do a Study Abroad program through Masa, coordinating college credits with their regular schools. Some find internships in their fields of study through Masa, and others utilize Masa for volunteer work. This young man worked for 10 months in Israel then came back to Buenos Aires, only to realize… he prefers Israel!

Each of the young people illustrated the importance of the Jewish Agency in connecting young Jewish adults with Israel and the broad array of value-added methods by which those connections can be made. It felt like the group had stepped out from under a great shadow cast by the Agam sculpture and the memory of the 1994 bombing, into the light of hope which glowed around the faces of the young people who spoke. The mission group departed AMIA understanding more about of the complexity of Jewish life in Buenos Aires, but also with the kind of optimism that only comes from meeting with young adults just returned from an Israel experience.

It was fitting that the next stop was to a place called L’Dor Va’Dor.

The next postcard from Argentina will be: L’Dor Va’Dor—JDC at work in Buenos Aires.

by Amy Zelenka