At a recent Friday night service at Beth Meier (“House of Light”), a small Conservative synagogue in Studio City, a woman and her two grown daughters read, in voices that conveyed controlled fury, a lengthy list of those killed in a horrendous terrorist attack. Many of the victims’ last names were familiar ones in any Jewish community: Malamud, Tenenbaum, Perelmuter, and on and on — 85 names in all. What was distinctive about this list of people, which included some non-Jews as well, was that their first names were all Spanish: Rosa, Marta, Andrés, Luis, Fabián.
Argentine-born Mirta Lipszyc and her daughters, Ekaterina and Nadia, were paying homage to those who perished in the 1994 bombing of the most important Buenos Aires Jewish community center, AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina; in Latin America, “Israelita” means “Jewish”). The pain of this attack is still felt deeply among Argentine Jews, not only because so many perished, but also because the planners and perpetrators of this crime remain unpunished.
The congregants and guests at the Spanish-language service at Beth Meier that evening included Argentina’s Consul General in Los Angeles, Jorge Lapsenson and three Argentine deputy consuls. Before Lipszyc and her daughters read the names and ages of the fallen, Lapsenson, who is Jewish, spoke briefly, saying he’d come “not as the Argentine consul, not as a Jew, but as a human being.” He said his wife’s cousin died in the terrorist attack on AMIA. “We commemorate this horrific event once a year,” Lapsenson said, “but we rememberit every day. ... Until there is clean and transparent justice for those responsible, none of us will live in peace.”
According to accounts in Argentine newspapers, successive Argentine governments failed to investigate the case properly. Finally, the government of Néstor Kirchner, in 2005, called the botched — and corrupt — investigations a “disgrace.” In October 2006, Buenos Aires prosecutors accused the Iranian government of having orchestrated the attack and accused Hezbollah of carrying it out. The Argentine government has tried in vain to have Iran extradite the known perpetrators. Iran denied involvement, and now, 16 years after the terrorist act, no one has yet been convicted or served any time in prison.
During the homage, Rabbi Daniel Mehlman, Beth Meier’s 51-year-old Argentine-born spiritual leader, recalled his own connection to the tragedy: The woman he knew as his first counselor at Buenos Aires’ Camp Ramah was among those killed. Speaking at the shul, Mehlman did not contain his grief, and the congregation, many of them Argentines whose lives had been touched by the attack, was also moved to tears.
With its low ceiling lined with heavy wooden beams, its stained-glass windows representing zodiac or biblical shapes in bright blues surrounding bright yellows and reds, its profusion of Magen Davids, menorahs and other starkly crafted Jewish symbols, the intimate Beth Meier sanctuary gives off an aura of Latin American magical realism mixed with Old World charm — an appropriate setting for emotionally charged Spanish-language prayers of remembrance.
Later, after the service, the crowd of about 70 moved to the shul’s social hall, where empanadas and pastries were served. This room is filled with photos of Beth Meier’s long history. It was founded in 1958 by Rabbi Meier Schimmel, who maintained that it was not named for him, but for Rabbi Meier Ba’al Ha’Ness, a Mishnah commentator who lived in the 1700s. Schimmel remained Beth Meier’s rabbi for more than 45 years and was replaced by his protégé, Aaron Benson, who later left Los Angeles. A year and a half ago, Daniel Mehlman became the rabbi and put into motion Beth Meier’s current bilingual program — trilingual, if one counts Hebrew.
Mehlman has lived in the United States for many years, and before that in Israel. He moves comfortably from Spanish to English to Hebrew. Besides a full range of English-language religious services and events — the main portion of what happens at Beth Meier — there are a number of regularly scheduled Spanish-language programs: a weekly class on Judaism, mainly for those converting; a monthly talk about Jewish concerns; and two Kabbalat Shabbat services per month, on the first and third Fridays. There are also Spanish-language holiday services. This past Rosh Hashanah, a second-night service was attended by Spanish-speakers from Los Angeles, as well as Jews from Mexicali, Mexico. A family of four flew in from Tepic, near Guadalajara.
Beth Meier is, at present, the only Southern California shul that offers a wide array of religious services in both English and Spanish.
“Right now we have about 25 to 30 people who come to the Spanish-language services and events,” Mehlman said. “They’re originally from different parts of Latin America. About half were born Jewish, while the other half converted, or are in the process of doing so.”
There are many Spanish-speaking Jews in the Valley and throughout southern California, and Mehlman said he’d like them to know that Beth Meier exists. “For first-generation [Spanish-speaking] Jews, it’s good to have the opportunity to pray, chant and learn about Judaism in their own language,” Mehlman said.
Mehlman is especially pleased that “Beth Meier’s English-speaking members, whether American-born, or from Iran, Russia, Great Britain or other European countries, have accepted the Spanish-speakers and integrated them into the Beth Meier family.”
Mehlman pointed out that Beth Meier’s founding rabbi, who died in 2005, wrote a “Brotherhood Prayer,” which was read at every Friday night service during his long tenure. In it, Schimmel prayed, “Father, I would open my heart even wider so that your love may flow through me to bless all whose lives I touch.” Schimmel was quoted as saying that one of the purposes of the prayer was to make “everyone feel at home.”
Mehlman said that he feels that the Spanish-language services and programs are in the same spirit as the brotherhood prayer, and that Schimmel would have been pleased with the changes he’s brought to the shul.