If it hadn't been for the vague restlessness that struck Marshall Meyer after his graduate studies in New York nearly two decades ago, he probably would have gone on to become another bright young suburban rabbi.
But as things have worked out, the Connecticut-born religious leader has become instead a foremost influence in the spiritual regeneration of Jewish life in Latin America.
Meyer, who went to Buenos Aires 22 years ago to "see what was happening in the Jewish community" there, stayed on to establish the only graduate level theological seminary in Latin America for the training of rabbis and teachers, the continent's only publishing program of contemporary as well as traditional Jewish literature in Spanish, and a Jewish educational camping program for young people.
He is also the spiritual leader of Beth El Synagogue in Buenos Aires, which has over 1,000 members.
While each of Meyer's activities tends to supplement the others, he sees the seminary as the linchpin for revitalizing Jewish communities in Latin America. "This is the institution which can do the most to bring about the renaissance of Jewish culture and education" in Latin America, said Meyer, 50, who was in Washington last week to try to develop a group of Washington Friends of the Seminary to help support his Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires.
"Where the boys," as he refers to his rabbinical graduates, "are working today, it has changed things" in the Jewish communities, he said.
A major reason, he explained, is that the spiritual leaders he trains can identify with the problems and the hopes of the people they seek to lead. "They are the only rabbis in Latin America that have participated in the problems of Latin America's coming into the modern world. They are not like me -- outsiders trying to understand the Latin American mentality. They understand the coming of age of their people."
Many, he said, have been trained in other professions before they enter his seminary. "They are lawyers, doctors who are also rabbis."
The students gain on-the-job experience during their seminary training through regular field work assignments, usually as youth directors, in synagogues in the Buenos Aires area. During the Jewish High Holy Days, they are dispatched throughout Latin America to conduct services for leaderless congregations.
Judaism, Meyer is quick to point out, has a long history in Latin America. Spanish Jews traveled to the New World on the ships of the earliest Spanish explorers. In 1654, the first Jewish settlers immigrated to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, now New York, from Latin America.
But the bulk of them came to Latin America during the 1890s, at the same time large numbers of European Jews were arriving in this country. Meyer explained. "The vast majority of Argentine Jews today were born in Argentina."
In all, Meyer estimated that there are about 650,000 Jews in Latin America, with the largest concentration, about 300,000, in Argentina. Buenos Aires alone, he said, "has 55 synagogues."
Meyer characterized Argentine Jewry as "a secularist community" but added that "as the result of the work of the seminary, they are becoming more active." The crops of new young rabbis come from this same secularist community, Meyer said, but they have been turned onto their Judaism, often by the Jewish summer camp program. "Most of the kids come [to the seminary] in spite of their parents rather than because of their parents," he said.
It is not particularly easy to be a Jew in Argentina. Anti-Semitism was a factor to be reckoned with even before the immigration of substantial numbers of Nazi sympathizers after the fall of the German Third Reich, and the influx of Arab interests and reported Palestine Liberation Organization influences in the last decade. It is not a topic on which Meyer volunteers information readily. Argentina is, after all, a country in which perhaps as many as 20,000 persons who have criticized the government have "disappeared" in recent years.
In Argentina, where the culture is not particularly hospitable to minorities, a non-Catholic cannot by law be elected to the highest office, and Meyer noted the existence of "important anti-Semitic journals, which you can buy at most any kiosk at any street corner." During last September and October, he reported, 23 Hebrew day schools received bomb threats, four synagogues and schools were actually bombed (there were no casualties) and a number of tombstones vandalized.
"These things happen, unfortunately," Meyer observed dryly. "No one is ever arrested."
Meyer is a committed Zionist. His rabbinical students are required to do part of their studies in Israel "because I believe that any rabbi anywhere in the world today must feel at home in Israel. Every rabbi should aid and abet aliyah [the return of Jews to the Israeli homeland] in every way possible."
Since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, between 35,000 and 40,000 Argentine Jews have emigrated for Israel, he said. He called Israel "the single most important force in the maintenance of the Jewish community in Latin America. It has given us a purpose, a balance, a sense of values that we never had before."