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Local women explore art, history, community in Argentina

Dawn Hunter (left) and Tandy Kippur in Buenos Aires on Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona 2011 Lion of Judah mission

Visiting a home for senior citizens may seem an unlikely highlight for a trip to Argentina, a land known for tango, sun and sea. But ask the 11 women who went on the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Lion of Judah mission to Buenos Aires April 3 to 8 about the trip, and chances are the Ledor Vador home for Jewish seniors is the first thing they’ll mention.

“If you can say a nursing home is wonderful, this was,” says Jane Kivel, describing a glass partition that separates Ledor Vador from the adjacent Baby Help Day Care Center and allows the seniors to see the kids playing.

“We were so impressed by the energy and the happiness there,” says Tandy Kippur, who co-chaired the mission with Kivel. The senior citizens do crafts with the children and make toys for them, says Kippur, adding, “I had never been to a retirement community like that, that was so light and airy and so happy.”

Argentina is home to about 240,000 Jews, the majority of them in Buenos Aires. The Ledor Vador center, built in 2007 by a partnership that included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) and the Tzedaka Foundation, is considered evidence of the community’s resilience following Argentina’s economic crisis of 2001.

The Tucson group also visited the AMIA building, where a kinetic sculpture by the Israeli artist Yaacov Agam memorializes the 85 people killed when the building was struck by a car bomb in 1984. No one has ever been brought to justice for that crime. .

“It’s a beautiful work,” says Kivel of the Agam sculpture, explaining that visitors walk around to see the colorful plastic panels from different angles. “Every time you look at it, it’s another piece of work. It’s a commitment to the victims’ memory, honoring their spirit and their legacy. It’s so unbelievable.”

Maralyn Goldstein, another of the Tucson Lions, dug deep into Argentina’s history, from the AMIA bombing to the 30,000 people who were “disappeared” by agents of the military regime between 1976 and 1983, a period known as the “dirty war.”

The group’s guide, Maria, told Goldstein that when the activists known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gather, they sound a shofar to honor the dead. Goldstein added that some of the women have been searching for decades for grandchildren who were born to political prisoners. The military took the babies and gave them away to other families to raise.

Many of the political prisoners — artists, writers, Jews and others — were held for years in concentration camps, says Goldstein. “You’re talking about Nazis coming over [to Argentina] at the same time as Jews,” she notes.

Reading Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman’s “Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number” helped put the guide’s information into perspective, adds Goldstein.

The group also spent several hours at the studio of an award-winning Jewish artist, Mirta Kupferminc, the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

Kupferminc, who works in a variety of media, from hand-crafting chairs with “wings” to printmaking, collaborated on a limited edition artist book about Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and the Kabbalah: Seeking Access,” notes Goldstein, a student of Kabbalah.

On a lighter note, Goldstein enjoyed bonding with the women in the group, shopping and visiting nightclubs that featured tango performances.

Kivel says the Argentina trip was one of the best women’s missions she’s been on. “The group just clicked. It was a sweet group, it was a wonderful group. And we were all different ages.”

“None of us knew each other that well going in,” says Kippur, but a shared love of Judaism and the “amazing energy” of their guide brought them together.  The non-Jewish guide was so knowledgeable about the Jewish community, several of the women remarked, that she felt “like family.”

Marlyne Freedman, JFSA vice president for campaign, and Brenda Landau, JFSA director of Women’s Philanthropy, both went on the trip, which was planned after a JFSA men’s group visited in March 2010. Along with a chance to connect more deeply with each other, the trip, says Landau, allowed the women to see some of the sites and agencies the Federation helps support through partners such as the JDC and World ORT.

One thing Kippur would like to take away from the trip was the spirit of the Argentine people. “There was just a really beautiful energy … really kind,” she says. “I think they’re all little more relaxed, a little better maybe at just enjoying life.”

For Kivel, mingling with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires reinforced the idea that the Jewish people are a global family.

An Orthodox wedding, with a rabbi who came in from Gibraltar, was taking place in the lobby of the hotel where the group stayed.  “It was just like being in the United States,” she says, with some of the guests dressed in modest Orthodox garb and others in sleeveless dresses and short skirts.

“It’s a nice feeling to be in Buenos Aires and find it’s the same all over the world, your own people,” says Kivel. “It gives you a comfortable feeling.”