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ARGENTINA JEWRY: A Historical Overview
©2009, 2010 by Joy Katzen-Guthrie • All Rights Reserved
Latest update: September 30, 2009
NOTE: This article is under construction and is being completed by Joy in stages. Check back frequently for updated information.

Central and South America's Largest Jewish Community, as well as the second largest Jewish community in the Americas, Argentina's Jews number some 200,000. From the first secret Jews who escaped the Inquisitions of Portugal and Spain in the late 16th century, to greater numbers of Jewish immigrants who settled Argentina in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to build agricultural communities, settle the cities, or take refuge from Eastern European persecution and the Holocaust — both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have maintained a colorful and diverse Jewish presence in Argentina. While early-arriving crypto Jews fully assimilated over the century that followed, the agricultural and urban Jewish communities remain active, although in decreasing numbers as more frontier Jews move to the cities, and greater numbers of city-dwelling Jews emigrate to Israel and other nations.

While Buenos Aires is home to the largest single Jewish community in Argentina (some 90% of Argentina's Jews), Jewish agricultural settlements and farms still dot the countryside, notably in the provinces of Entre Rios and Santa Fe, as well as communities such as Rosario, Cordoba, Concordia, La Plata, and Mar del Plata. In fact, it was farmers who comprised most of the first Jewish settlers in 19th century Argentina. In a second wave over the century to follow, many would move to the cities to take positions as peddlers, merchants, and traders. A third wave has made a central contribution to Argentina's culture as professional musicians and composers, writers, performers, artists, and filmmakers, as well as businessmen and women. An estimated 70 congregations serve Buenos Aires. Orthodox congregations make up the largest number in the city, with conservative and progressive (reform) congregations increasing. The Jewish Theological Seminary branch in Buenos Aires, which opened in 1962, ordained its first woman rabbi 30 years later in 1992.

Argentina's Jewish community has seen a great many challenges in recent years, notably the terror incited by the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983, the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Community Center in the early nineties, as well as recent desecration of Jewish monuments. The economic decline of the late nineties to the present has been a great hardship to many. More than a third of the Jewish community has emigrated in recent years to Israel, the United States, and Europe. Nevertheless, a vibrant cultural and educational life remains in Argentina's Jewish community.

It is said that the proportion of Jewish organizations to Jewish inhabitants in Buenos Aires is greater than that of any other city on the planet. While approximately 70 Jewish learning institutions boasted an approximately 60% enrollment among Jews in the entire country until the late nineties, some 40 Jewish schools continue to serve today, with enrollment figures still high, even with economic conditions preventing many from private study. The community is assisted by aid from Jewish humanitarian organizations, missions, and programs worldwide in addition to the Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA), founded in 1939 to protect Jewish rights, and the AMIA, a central cultural organization providing health and human services to the Buenos Aires Jewish community.Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish, and Spanish publications have served this community since the 19th century, with an astonishing number of successful Jewish Argentine writers.

Sources: Agricultural Colonies in the Argentine Republic, 1900, by Max Rosenthal,
Argentina Emigration and Immigration, FamilySearch Research Wiki

Much has been made of the Jewish Gauchos (farmers/ranchers) of Argentina. Films of their remaining settlements can be viewed on YouTube, while museums and cultural organizations have been established to keep alive their memory. The colonies are still home to Gaucho settlers today. The race to colonize Argentina had been set in motion by the war of independence and the early republic's calls encouraging foreign immigration to work the land and develop agricultural industry. With the establishment of the Commisison of Immigration in 1824 and a number of serious colonization efforts by the government in the decades following, European immigrants began establishing settlements in the open lands surrounding Buenos Aires in the provinces of Santa Fe, Chaco, and Entre Rios. Irish, English, Swiss, Italian, French, Russian, Welsh, and German settlers were encouraged to work the land and give their harvests to the government as contracted payment for the land. Later, some 1.5 million independent, non-contracted immigrants arrived between 1870 and 1890, followed by thousands of Russian Jewish refugees acting individually and in cooperation with Jewish Colonization efforts. In the early 1900s, Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, and African immigrants would arrive in large numbers, with refugees of the Holocaust finding a home in Argentina in later decades.

The early Jewish frontier settlements were established by the Jewish Colonization Association of Paris and its philanthropic founders, Baron and Baroness de Hirsch, in August 1891. Some 17 million acres of land were purchased in various areas of the Argentine Republic; the increasingly violent pograms of Russia and Eastern Europe had necessitated the purchase of this land as a safe haven for Russian refugees. Though the purchases initially met with a brief protest from the government, it came to be amiable toward the formation of the colonies.

In the two years preceding the Jewish Colonization Association's purchase of this land, various Russian individuals had attempted to create settlements, largely without success as a result of the harsh conditions of living as well as the disorganization of these first attempts. The earlier colonies and their inhabitants would later be absorbed by the JCA project, with the establishment of two first colonies: Mauricio in Buenos Aires Province, and Moïseville in Santa Fe Province. The older of the two, Moïsesville, had been settled a year before the JCA was formed. The creation of these colonies was marked by tremendous challenges, in particular the scarcity of water, large-scale loss of crops from locusts, and the considerable distance to markets or railroad stations. Within the first two years, some 800 discontented colonists were deported to the U.S., leaving a settler population of 2,683 in 1893. As more immigrants arrived from Russia, colony popluations increased and conditions of life became comfortable.

Moïseville, the oldest of all the Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Argentina, was comprised of nearly 60,000 acres, 22,500 of which were settled by colonists. Despite the desperate state of its initial settlement, this colony would eventually become the most successful, with highly successful yields of cattle, milk, wheat, flax, lucerne, rye, and vegetables. In 1900, the community was comprised of 168 families (825 individuals) living in 130 brick houses, and contained a factory, synagogue, school, pharmacy, and mikveh, with plans to build 2 more schools. Mauricio, in Buenos Aires Province, was home to 211 families and 1,045 persons total in 1900. The less fertile soil of this region required a variety of crops to be grown, including wheat, maize, lucerne, flax, barley, rye, oats, tobacco, and vegetables on just over 22,000 acres. Cattle-breeding was the colony's most important industry. In 1900, the community was home to a hospital, steam flourmill, slaughterhouse, mikveh, and three schools.

The largest colony, Clara - named for Baroness de Hirsch - in the province of Entre Rios, was established in 1894 and settled by immigrants who were part of a second exodus of Jews from Russia. Ten groups of some 40 families each were transferred directly from their ships to the farms they would settle. Their basic necessities - clay homes (later rebuilt in brick), cattle, seeds, tools, and food - had already been provided. Increasing arrivals of immigrants caused the colony to expand quickly. Water was obtained at great expense by boring to a depth of nearly 100 feet. In Entre Rios Province, the Jewish Colonization Association owned nearly 382,0000 acres, the largest colony of which was Clara, home to nearly 5,000 citizens by 1900.

NOTE: This article is under construction and is being completed by Joy in stages. Check back frequently for updated information.

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