Singing for Survival: Argentines Bring Vibrant Worship to Reform Biennial

Singing Hinei Ma Tov a cappella in the corner of a meeting room, Argentine Cantor Sheila Nesis closes her eyes while fellow Argentine Cantors Silvina Chemen and Diego Rubinsztein fill out the chord, blending melodically. Their music, the three insist, is not a performance. It’s a prayer for peace, for the people Israel and for those in Argentina who have been traumatized by the events of the past 13 years and need healing. All three prefer to call themselves sh’lichei tzibur (prayer leaders) rather than chazzanim. Chazzanim perform, said Nesis. Sh’lichei tzibur are not more than the other people. We get people to a higher level of spirit. We don’t face the people. We face the aron, the ark.

The Argentineans were at the Union of Reform Judaism regional biennial at the Santa Clara Marriott last weekend to share their music and tell their stories. They were accompanied by Rabbi David Gelfand of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons on Long Island, who has been instrumental in bringing their music and plight to the attention of the U.S. Jewish community. The cantors are part of a network called Fundación Judaica, headed by Rabbi Sergio Bergman and dedicated to revitalizing Jewish life in Argentina after the terrorist attacks of the early ’90s followed by the economic crash of 2001. “The crisis has shown us naked – not prepared, Chemen said. But by forming a network and coming together, she added, the Jewish community has grown stronger and emigration has slowed. Chemen, 42, who is a Jewish educator finishing studies to become a rabbi, sees her mission as not simply one of worship.

“My Jewish identity comes not just from synagogue, but from helping my brothers and sisters,” those who lost everything found a new dimension to being a Jew in Argentina, said Chemen. Chemen emphasizes that the cantors visits to America are not just to seek assistance for Jewish organizations in Argentina, but to reciprocate by sharing their music and strategies for community survival. “We understand the fact that our people need help, but we also have things that people in America don’t have.” Among them is a vibrant style of Jewish worship that has inspired such American congregations as New York’s B’nai Jeshurun, where services are transfused with heartfelt singing.

In addition, through weathering devastation in their own country for more than a decade, the three have learned something about the power of music and worship as forces of healing. Indeed, the Jewish community in Argentina has been pummeled by repeated disasters: the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy, which killed 29 people; the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center, which killed 86; the economic collapse of 2001; and political turmoil. “It was a chain that got worse and worse, said Chemen, adding that evidence linking suspects to the bombings was destroyed, hidden or purposefully lost. Then came the crash. The community’s Jewish population, which was about 325,000 a couple of decades ago, is now about 200,000. Most have left for Israel.

Catastrophe has transformed the role of the synagogue in Argentina, and the role of the cantor, the three point out. “Before the crisis, people came to synagogue to pray, to relax, said Nesis, 21, who is studying philosophy at university. After people didn’t need to relax. They were depressed. They needed to get energy. Instead of quiet melodies, said Rubinsztein, we returned to Chassidic music utilizing some of the melodies of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach as well as more spirited medleys. Pieces are arranged by Rubinsztein, 29, who is a concert performer, playing keyboards and piano.

Rubinsztein, who has been working as a youth leader in the Jewish community since 1993, distinguishes between his work in the concert hall and in the recording studio with his service in the synagogue. “In the temple, I pray with the music. I pray with my fingers. I pray with my voice. It’s not a show. I have my performance in the concert hall. In the synagogue, I help people to pray.”


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