In September 2022, JHE Contributor Michele Migliori began field work in Argentina to document synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites for his PhD research at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University. His focus is on how synagogues in the Argentine countryside resemble European ones as the product of European Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What’s European in these Argentine synagogues? And what elements in their art and architecture are, instead, local? These are among the questions he is asking. In addition, what is their condition and state of preservation – or lack of preservation?
In this personal essay, Michele provides a look at his research.
Synagogues in Rural Argentina – A meld of European origins and local sensibilities
By Michele Migliori
June 22, 2023
Jews started settling in remote areas of Argentina slightly before Baron Maurice de Hirsch established the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) in 1891 – a society aimed at resettling Jews from the Russian Empire in agricultural colonies in Argentina (and, later, elsewhere).
In Argentina, the JCA worked from 1891 to the second half of the 20th century and founded about 18 “colonies” around the country, each composed of small towns and villages. Thousands of Jews began arriving in Argentina after the establishment of the JCA, mainly coming from today’s Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and Romania. In the 1930s, Jews fleeing Germany and German-occupied territories also arrived.
In a way, these colonies were similar to the European “shtetl.” The immigrants attempted to recreate their European life by building schools, synagogues, and cemeteries. However, from the second generation on, the demography changed as Jews moved away to bigger towns and cities. Today the Jewish presence in the original settlements varies between none at all and 10 per cent.
The synagogues I’m studying were built between the 1890s and the 1930s.
They include synagogues in JCA colonies as well as in independent Jewish agricultural colonies funded by Jewish immigrants who didn’t participate in the Baron Hirsch initiative, or who decided to drop the JCA project, as well as other small towns where Jewish presence is historically important
.So far, within the former Jewish agricultural colonies (either of the JCA or independent) alone, I have visited and documented 40 synagogues and 40 Jewish cemeteries located in 40 villages and towns in seven different provinces.
In each place, I tried to obtain as much information as possible about local Jewish life – past and present, especially the religious side, through archival documents, interviews, and casual conversations with locals (Jews and non-Jews alike). Below, I’m only going to focus on a few buildings that I think have a greater and clearer relation with European synagogues.
For example, this is the case in Basavilbaso, in the Entre Ríos Province, the administrative center of what once was known as the JCA-founded “Lucienville” Jewish agricultural colony, about 250 km north of Buenos Aires.
The Tfila LeMoshe synagogue there dates from 1912. Its ceiling decoration may be unique in Argentina and is directly influenced by eastern European shuls. (See the cover image above.)
Musical instruments ranged around the ceiling evoke Psalm 150, which exhorts praising God with musical instruments. And the four animals mentioned in the Ethics of the Fathers — “Be as strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a hart, and brave as a lion to perform the will of thy Father who is in Heaven” — are arranged in the four corners of a frame around a central motif, which shows the sky with some birds.
The musical instruments, as well as the four animals and the sky with birds, can be found in a number of synagogues in Romania, Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Two examples are the ceilings of the New Great Synagogue of Novoselytsia, Ukraine and the Gmilut Hasadim (GAH) synagogue in Suceava, where both motifs can be found.
In the Tfila LeMoshe synagogue, two paintings related to the Land of Israel are found on the outer side of the women’s gallery, in the part closest to the Aron HaKodesh. One depicts the Western Wall, while the other shows the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, built in 1872 and much later destroyed by the Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence.
Their style is not necessarily similar to the ones that can be found in Eastern European synagogues, but the motif certainly is, since murals of both subjects (and other images of the Holy Land) can be found in a number of Eastern European synagogues.
Basavilbaso’s other synagogue, known as the Beth Abraham or Arbeter Shul — the Workers’ synagogue — was built in 1917. The peculiarity of this synagogue is represented by its eastern wall, which is richly decorated with wall paintings.
The designs applied to the upper part of the wall was copied from a printed Mizrach (an ornamental picture placed to denote the eastward direction) that was brought or sent by someone from Jerusalem. The Mizrach is on the amud, or prayer lectern of the synagogue.
There are also representations of the Dome of the Rock, and Rachel’s and King David’s tombs, which can be also found in wall paintings in Central and Eastern Europe, such as in the Grain Merchants’ Synagogue in Bacău, Romania. All the images in the Beth Abraham synagogue in Basavilbaso were probably taken from the same Mizrach, which has various images of holy sites in the Land of Israel.
Eastern European synagogue art greatly inspired the synagogue In Médanos, a town in the Buenos Aires province.
Its bimah is surrounded by four ceiling-high pillars, reminiscent of the columns that supported the ceiling in many Eastern European synagogues. According to oral tradition, this temple was built following the instructions of an immigrant who came from present-day Belarus and wanted to build a synagogue like the one in his hometown in the Bjaroza area.
In this synagogue, there’s a mural showing musical instruments hanging from branches that refers to Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, and even wept, remembering Zion. On the willows, in the midst of it, we hang our harps.” There are several examples of Central and Eastern European synagogues that feature the same motif, such as in the case of the Grain Merchants’ Synagogue in Bacău or in Piatra Neamț.
The European influence in Argentinian rural synagogues doesn’t end with their architecture and style, it also encompasses the beautiful artisanal work that can be found inside them.
This is the case of elaborate hand-made mizrach papercuts, and ritual objects of various kinds and materials (from wood to silver), and furniture.
Personally, I think the Torah Ark of the Brenner synagogue in Moisés Ville, also popularly known in the country as the “Jerusalem of Argentina,” is a great example of Eastern European artisanry.
Created by a local Jewish craftsman named Abraham Silberman, the Ark and its decoration, which includes animals from Jewish mythology as well as fruit, and other elements, is an extraordinary and fine example of Eastern European style arks.
Bigger and richer examples of such art can (or could) be found in several synagogues, including Falticeni, Roman, and Botoşani, Romania, and Włodowa and Bobowa, Poland.
There’s another way, too, that the Jewish heritage sites in rural Argentina today bear a relationship to the eastern European countries of origin of the communities that built them – that is, the precarious state of abandonment that I found at many sites. Several once beautiful synagogues, such as in the former JCA colonies of Moisés Ville, Montefiore, Ubajay, and others, have already been demolished.
Indeed, Argentina, with few exceptions, still represents virgin territory regarding Jewish heritage preservation.
Synagogues are preserved and cared for where a Jewish community is still active, or where the municipality is responsible for them — or where tourist promotion can play a role.
This is the case, for example, in Moisés Ville and the settlements of Basavilbaso, Villa Dominguez, and Villa Clara in the central part of Entre Ríos, an area visited by thousands of tourists each year exclusively for their Jewish heritage, represented by synagogues, cemeteries, other community buildings, and the Museum and Archive of the Jewish Colonization in Villa Dominguez.
But, as in many places in eastern and central Europe, the situation changes drastically when only a handful, or no Jews are left.
In Carmel, a former Jewish settlement now composed of only a few houses, the simple synagogue was restored, but its furnishings were left abandoned in the ruined keeper’s house.
In San Gregorio, the synagogue, which is believed to be the oldest in the region, possibly dating back to the early 1890s, stands completely abandoned, thought it is marked with signage.
In Bernasconi, in La Pampa Province, 800 km west of Buenos Aires, around 30 Jews maintain a synagogue and community center, which date back to the 1970s. However, the old synagogue, built in the 1910s, stands completely abandoned.
Inside, I found dozens of tefillin, Torah mantles, parochet, siddurim, books, two Torah Arks, and more.
In Colonia Dora, a former Jewish settlement in the Santiago del Estero Province, the vast Jewish cemetery is completely abandoned and ruined. At the same time, the only memory of the synagogue is its façade and a concrete bimah, since the rest of the building was demolished, and a park was installed.
Jews were brought to settle in rural Argentina less than 140 years ago. But traveling from village to village, from town to town, I often feel like I am visiting a vanishing world — a world that is vanishing fast, if not already gone.
I wonder what will be left in 10 years, if action is not taken, by either national or international bodies, public or private, Jewish or not. Action such as the implementation of new tourist routes — but also new strategies to conserve and revitalize Jewish heritage sites in these rural areas.
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JHE Contributor Michele Migliori is conducting research in Argentina for his PhD at Bar Ilan University, in Israel.