While I was growing up, Buenos Aires was my home turf. As a teenager, staying up overnight from Saturday to Sunday roaming the streets with your friends was common, and there were no particular safety concerns beyond the usual necessary caution. As I was growing up, the Jewish community held pro-Israel rallies in the streets of Buenos Aires together with non Jewish groups. While making a living in Buenos Aires was never easy, there were possibilities...I used to work in three different places while I was in College...
I left Argentina in May 1989. Since then, a number of watershed events changed the landscape of my city in ways I couldn't foresee when I boarded the plane to come to America:
In 1992, a car bomb destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. The Argentinean government is yet to find those responsible and/or accept Israeli help in the investigation. At the time, I was a recent graduate from the Master program on Jewish Non Profit Management at the Hebrew Union College (Los Angeles campus) and starting my first job in this country as Community Relations Director for the Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties in New Jersey. What shocked me were some of the reactions from the general population. Some neighbors of the Embassy grounds requested that the Israeli Embassy be moved someplace else to prevent danger to their homes...and the Embassy had a very hard time finding a new place to function because of the reluctance of people to rent them space.
On July 18, 1994, while I was still working in Atlantic County, I received a phone call from a fellow Argentinean who worked at the time with the American Jewish Committee in New York, Jacobo Kovadloff. He delivered to me the news that the building of the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) had been bombed. That building was the equivalent of UJA-New York, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Asociation of Jewish Families and Children Agencies (AJFCA), the Jewish Educational Services of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs all rolled into one – plus it housed the Chief Rabbinate of Argentina and the Administration of the Jewish Cemeteries. While living in Buenos Aires, that building was one the places I visited the most since a number of my friends used to work there and it was also the meeting place for the Argentinean Association of Jewish Communal Workers Board, of which I was an officer. After hearing from the explosion things were a complete confusion. I talked with my parents, who told me they were able to hear the detonation from a couple of miles away; I tried to find out about my friends (I would hear the stories of those who survived over the years to come), and I tried to comprehend the situation to no avail. How much this event was to change the character of my home community I was to find out years later when I visited.
The immediate reaction of the non Jewish community in Argentina was in some ways appalling, with the Archbishop of Buenos Aires calling for all Jewish organizations to be concentrated some place “out of the way”, so “regular Argentineans could be safe”. In other ways, the reactions were uplifitng, with many non Jews joining in demanding that the authorities find those responsible. Over the years, the AMIA case was to become a symbol for many Argentineans of the lack of safety in the streets – a phenomenon that I learned grew steadily since my departure to the point that people are sometimes afraid of walking the streets of Buenos Aires at night. The AMIA case remains unsolved to this day.
Then came the economic collapse of 2002, with all the accompanying situations, from the “corralito” to the bankruptcy of several private Banks. The Corralito was a system established by the government which had the end result of allowing the government to pretty much steal from private citizens' savings in order to pay for its own operation. The bankruptcy of private banks had a great impact on the Jewish community because some of them were Jewish-owned bank with Foundations which helped the Jewish institutions in town. From my end, sitting in America, I proudly saw how the JDC, an agency we support with the Federation campaign, stepped in to help people deal with the immediate crisis as well as retraining people for the changing landscape of the job market and helping them get jobs or start new small companies.
During my 2005 visit to Buenos Aires, I was shocked by the changed community I saw. A community which prided itself in keeping its institutions open 24 hours a day with activities had become a community barricaded behind security pylons and restricted access upon security identification. A community which has retrenched and which is afraid of openly supporting Israel, more and more so as the Argentinean government continues to align itself with Brazil's Lula and Venezuela's Chavez.
Yet Buenos Aires is still where I grew up, is still where much of my family lives, where many of my friends continue to live. It is home – and it is not. The sights still trigger my memories of home, but it is a very different place today than it was 23 years ago when I left. It is true, indeed – You can never go home.