Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: The Whimper and the Bang

September 10, 2014

The Whimper and the Bang

It’s been many, many months since I’ve posted. For a multiplicity of reasons. But the muse seems to be back.

For security reasons, most of my appointments are scheduled, with police checks done on anyone who is not familiar to the institution. However today, I had a walk-in, a mother and daughter who were in the building for other business.

The daughter is from a town in the interior of Uruguay. At first I assumed she was a teenager, but I was informed she was married and expecting their first child. She is the last Jew in her town. She is married to a non-Jew. She is confused as to how to educate her soon-to-be child. Her Judaism is that she respects Yom Kippur. The mother came in to our offices to look into moving the buried remains of an uncle from a Christian cemetery to our Jewish cemetery. His tombstone has a star of David next to his date of birth and a cross next to the date of his death.

I gave them some encouragement to explore Judaism further and empathized with the difficulty in experiencing Judaism when you are the last Jew in town (and she wasn’t the only example this week). They explained to me that whatever Jews had been in the town previously had converted ages ago to Christianity and their descendents proudly wear crosses around their neck. There is even a family called “Rabino” (literally “Rabbi”) that are active Christians. I looked at the expectant mother with such a tenuous connection to Judaism and I thought to myself: This is a town that the Jews vanished from with a silent whimper. It was a sad thought in a job where I witness people consciously, actively leaving the fold on a daily basis.

But it seems though the job exposes one to extreme sadness, I get to experience extreme joy as well.

Today was a historic day in the Jewish community of Uruguay.

We were visited on Monday by a bet din (a tribunal) of three Dayanim (judges) from the Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) of Israel. There has not been an active qualified Bet Din here of this level for a number of generations. They tested ten candidates who wanted to convert to Judaism. All ten were accepted. In their extensive experience, they never approve all the candidates. This is a credit to the selfless dedication of the teacher, Rabbi Oved Avrej. That was indeed a cause for celebration, however, the best was yet to come.

Tonight, under the supervision of these Dayanim, we performed five back-to-back wedding ceremonies. I have never seen, heard of, or experienced anything like it. Each ceremony was relatively quick. 20-30 minutes. But each one was full of joy. And the joy just seemed to increase and expand with every subsequent wedding. Each new couple that came into the House of Israel. Each new family that was born. Each new family that multiplied the strength and power of the community. I am sure God was smiling from above. I am sure His presence was there in the simple, humble ceremonies. I am sure He is pleased by the newest members of the Tribe.

If the morning showed me the last breaths of a dying community, the night showed the rebirth of a growing one. It is heartening. It is encouraging. It is inspiring. These are new stars in the cosmos whose light will shine for many years to come.

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