Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Weapon of Mass Education

April 24, 2015

Weapon of Mass Education

camaraTestigoIt started without ceremony. A phone call. A member of my community. She had been contacted by connections from a popular Uruguayan TV program. They wanted to make a program about Judaism in Uruguay – who should be their key person? She wanted to know if I was willing. I protested. Certainly there are people with both more knowledge and better Spanish than me. She insisted. You’re the man. Fine.

The producer came to my office and to this day still refers to me as “Ingeniero” (Engineer) – a title to which he seems to give greater respect than to “Rabino” (which I’m not sure is not valid…). He explains to me what they want to do. I write out a guide and an outline as to what should be included and what we should cover.

That was about a year ago. We didn’t cover everything we hoped, but there is the distinct possibility that we will do more given the great success of the program.

The day the bomb fell was this past Monday, April 20. There was an advance warning. A commercial was posted online. Thanks to the magic of WhatsApp the commercial went viral within the Uruguayan community and in a space of minutes most or all of the Jews of Uruguay knew there would be a program that related to them.

At 10:30pm the bomb fell and changed the community in a way we are just beginning to see.

The host, Kairo Herrera, interviews me and we talk about the history of the Jews in Uruguay, the Holocaust, Shabbat and Brit Milah. There are interviews with the President of the Comite Central, the umbrella Jewish organization of the community. The Shemtov family, the Chabad emissaries in Uruguay for 30 years played a central role in demonstrating and explaining much of Jewish law and rituals.

I was surprised by the number of people who watched it. I was pleased by the number of people in the Jewish community who saw it and congratulated me on a good performance. I was shocked that every other person I met this week saw it and commented on it. The pool people, the garage people, the gardener, the cleaning staff, the security staff. The bank teller starts getting into a discussion with me about the fear of circumcision and other people on the line joined in on the discussion. A Christian woman in the crowd extolled her love of Jews and how her friends from the Church are right now in Jerusalem, our Holy City.

We received a call from an important non-Jewish Kosher food provider that now wants to meet with me.

People are talking about it. Arguing about it. Debating if it’s good for the Jews or bad. Griping whether it was a good representation of Jews or not. To me those issues are secondary. We have a discussion going. People are hearing about Shabbat, about prayer, about Brit Mila, about Jewish history, Jewish faith and Jewish identity. A person in my office with little Jewish interest starts to ask me about spiritual matters.

I receive heartfelt thanks from members of the community. I’m told this is a major building-block for increasing Jewish awareness and practice in a very secularized country.

That was the first wave of the bomb. For the first time in Uruguayan history I’m told, there was a full-length nationally-aired locally produced TV program about Judaism. It helped that it was hosted by one of the more popular personalities, and presented Judaism in a warm and respectful yet approachable fashion.

For the host to explain to the Uruguayan public the laws of the Sabbath, for me was incredible. For him to discover and reconnect with his Jewish origins was clearly emotional and resonated with many. Long-time watchers of Kairo have told me they have never seen him so moved in one of his programs.

That was the direct impact. Thousands upon thousands of Jews who are hearing details of their culture – many for the first time in their lives.

However, the fallout is even more interesting. A large swath of the Uruguayan population also watched the show. Gentiles start to talk with Jews about their religion. And what I sensed from many, and what brings me to tears of joy, is that these Jews respond with pride. Yes, these are our customs. Yes, these are our traditions. This is where we come from. That is our Rabbi.

All of a sudden, people who I’ve met briefly once in my life, or who have merely been in the same room with me for a few minutes, are saying – that’s my Rabbi.

They are telling their coworkers, neighbors, friends how they go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, how their parents were Holocaust survivors, how their uncle, or cousin, or child lives in Israel, how they have a weekly Friday night Shabbat dinner that brings the family together and that they eat some of the exact same foods that they saw on TV. That yes, they and their father before them and their grandfather and all their ancestors going back 4,000 years to our Patriarch Abraham had a Brit Mila, a circumcision that demonstrates our eternal bond between our people and God. They said all of this and more. That was the second wave.

The third wave is a respect that is crystallizing. The gentiles in this very secular country are verbalizing a respect for its Jewish citizens, who they always admired, but saw as hidden behind a veil of secrecy and mysterious and unknown customs. But now they’ve been invited into our homes, to our dinner table and our kitchen. To our ceremonies, histories and beliefs. And the overall reaction to these customs is not aversion, but respect, admiration and perhaps some envy. They sense the antiquity of our roots. They understand the centrality of our family life. They see the strength of our faith.

All of these waves have affected and will affect the Jewish community. To see themselves in the eyes of the Gentile, to stand in front of them with pride and to see respect reflected in their eyes validates their tradition more than a thousand sermons.

Whoever wants to help me with continued Weapons of Mass Education, please be in touch.

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