Being Jewish Abroad: Passover in Santiago

Noa Leiter
May 20, 2019
Círculo Israelita de Santiago Synagogue

Although I don’t consider myself particularly religious, Judaism was a large component of my upbringing. Ever since I can remember, Shabbat dinners brought my family together on Friday nights and Saturday brunches and holidays were spent with our network of Jewish family friends. For me, Judaism has always meant community, laughter, and of course good food.

One reason I was excited to study abroad in Buenos Aires was the large Jewish community. Argentina actually has the seventh largest Jewish population in the world and the largest one in South America. The country has a unique history because following World War II, Argentina accepted both Nazi war criminals and Jewish refugees. Further, anti-semitism is a pertinent issue in Argentina. Since being here, Argentina's Chief Rabbi was attacked at his home in Buenos Aires, and seven Jewish graves were defaced with Nazi symbols in western Argentina. Although I was not directly affected by either of these incidents, this is my first time living in a place where I do not necessarily feel safe advertising that I am a Jew.

Throughout my first month here, I talked casually with some of the other Jewish students on my program about going to temple or finding a local family to spend Shabbat with, but nothing ever came to fruition. I didn’t notice my disconnect with Judaism until Passover rolled around and I received an email from KAHAL, which is an organization that connects students with Jewish communities and events abroad. KAHAL made it extremely easy to find a Seder that aligned with my religious/denominational preference in the city of our choice.

I happened to be traveling in Chile on the first night of Passover, so my friends and I were set up to go to a Seder in the Santiago. I had no clue what to expect─all the information we had was a time and place. Night of, after a long day of exploring Santiago, two of my friends and I piled into an Uber and drove 20 minutes out of the city. When we arrived, we were welcomed by four security guards in front of a set of giant metal gates. One of the men took our passports to some type of security room, while the other began chatting with us about what brought us to South America. Eventually, they returned our passports and opened the gates to reveal a vast outdoor space with two large buildings separated by a huge lawn. We were escorted into what turned out to be a beautiful synagogue and showed into a Shabbat service. There were somewhere between 100 and 150 people in attendance and three men leading the service from a center stage. The room was constructed from wood panelling, except for a breathtaking floor-to-ceiling stained glass window behind the Torah Ark. Hebrew prayers rang throughout the room and I felt a true sense comfort and community from a room of complete strangers─something I had never experienced before. Although the prayers were in Hebrew, the transitions and commentary were in Spanish. I felt grounded by how far-reaching the Jewish community felt in that moment. Although they were speaking a language other than my own, we were all united by our religion.

After the service, we were were walked over to the second building for the Seder. A giant table was set for the occasion and we were joined by around 40 other people: families with children, older individuals, young adults, and eight other American exchange students. Rabbi Ari ran the Seder, and although bits and pieces varied from the one I was used to in the U.S., it was remarkably similar in terms of religiosity and overall atmosphere. For dinner, we had matzah ball soup, various salads, roasted potatoes, and chicken. For dessert we ate two different cakes and some type of delicious strawberry whipped cream. Everyone was extraordinarily friendly, and the night was comprised of chatting in Spanglish with people from all different backgrounds. Kids ran and played throughout the space, throwing plastic balls around the room, playing with dolls, riding on scooters. It all came to a close at around 11:30 p.m., when we returned back to our hostel. I left feeling thankful for the wonderful community that welcomed us in and excited to continue developing my personal Jewish identity.

Noa Leiter

<p>I am a junior at The George Washington University majoring in psychology and organizational sciences with a minor in Spanish. I am passionate about sustainability and over the last three years I have been working to both decrease my own ecological footprint and advocate for sustainable development on campus. I am also an art enthusiast; I love exploring galleries, finding new street art, as well as creating my own photography and multimedia projects.</p>

Home University:
George Washington University, The
Newton, MA
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