SAN DIEGO - Abuzz with activity and the shouts of children, the atmosphere at Ra’anana’s Kehilat Masortit Amitai as Shabbat approaches on a Friday evening is far from suggesting contemplative silence.

The kids – ranging from kindergarten age to high school-aged youth counselors – stay busy with supervised games and activities, then easily transition into a youth-group style service, singing loudly and enthusiastically, while many of their parents file into the main sanctuary as prayers begin. The community’s spiritual leader, Gustavo Gryncwajg, not only doesn’t mind the noise – he encourages it. The congregational youth group, called Ruach (Spirit), is unique in Israel following a model utterly unfamiliar to most Israelis.

Latin American Jews – particularly those from Argentina – have always been part of the Israeli immigrant mosaic. Throughout most of Israel’s history, they have been stereotyped as perhaps the most secular of all immigrant groups, with a socialist orientation and close affiliations with the kibbutz movements.

But in the past few decades, some of them have had a noticeable impact on the Conservative (or Masorti, as it’s known here) movement in Israel, injecting it with a distinctly Latin flavor as well as an appealing spirit of fostering community and activism. Leaders like Gryncwajg who came to Israel with a passion for the movement are the fruit of seeds planted in Argentina by the legendary Marshall Meyer, a U.S. Conservative rabbi who lived and worked in Buenos Aires between 1958-1984 and founded both the Comunidad Bet El congregation and the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano. This Conservative rabbinical school in Buenos Aires has trained generations of Spanish-speaking rabbis, who exported Meyer’s model of Jewish community life across Latin America. Meyer was an internationally famous human rights activist during the so-called “Dirty War” in the 1970s when many Argentineans were ‘disappeared’ by the regime and he bravely spoke out. New Yorkers know him because in 1984, he returned to the United States and breathed new life into the veteran Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, before he passed away suddenly in 1993.

Synagogues like Amitai in Ra’anana demonstrate that Meyer’s spirit lives on in Israel – and his model of fusing traditional Jewish practice with community-building, voluntarism and political involvement is being harnessed to reach out to secular Israelis who seek more spiritual meaning and connection, as well as ways to express their Jewishness in a non-coercive environment.

‘Children are never a bother’

In Ra’anana, a suburban town north of Tel Aviv, the immigrants injected new energy into the Masorti scene when Amitai was created in 1992 as a haven for Spanish speakers. The congregation expanded tremendously with the wave of Latin American immigration in 2001-2002 that was linked to the collapse of the Argentinean economy. Gryncwajg moved from Ashkelon to Ra’anana in 1999 to lead the community and after its growth spurt in 2002, he initiated new programs, including Ruach.

“There were a lot of immigrants who were looking for the same kind of community they had left behind. They wanted to attend services but didn’t know what to do with their children, and they didn’t want their kids to bother anyone. If there’s one thing that Marshall Meyer taught us, it was that children are never a bother,” says Gryncwajg.

The Amitai community operated alongside Ra’anana’s veteran Masorti congregation that was established by English-speaking immigrants in 1975. In 2011, urged on by the national Masorti movement, the two congregations merged. The result is a larger multicultural congregation where Hebrew is the common tongue. Three years ago, all of the Ruach activities were in Spanish. Today the language spoken is Hebrew, and the number of children participating has doubled from 50 to 100.

The newfound integration was on full display at a recent event marking the fourth night of Hannukah, as congregants lit candles, ate soofganiyot (traditional Hanukkah doughnuts), played bingo and mingled. The crowd included Carmel and Ronen Nourani, who are neither Latin American nor Anglo-Saxon, but native Israelis who joined the congregation after getting to know Gryncwajg and choosing the congregation for their son Tal’s bar mitzvah last year.

“Tal got to know the congregation as he studied for his bar mitzvah,” says Carmel Nourani. “I always wanted more Jewish content for the kids – I was the one who enrolled them in TALI schools, which is where I first met Gustavo [Gryncwajg] through his kids.” She was referring to the TALI network, which is loosely affiliated with the Masorti movement and provides pluralistic Jewish studies programs in 200 public schools and preschools around the country.

Carmel Nourani nods towards her husband. “In the beginning, Ronen would resist anything religious, even lighting candles on Friday night.” Now he regularly attends services with her, and their youngest daughter, Michal, participates in Ruach. “It’s great for the whole family. We always liked Gustavo and knew members of the community, so after the merger when everything started to be in Hebrew, it became more comfortable for us to be a part of it.”

Though he leads services and functions as a rabbi, Gryncwajg hasn’t officially earned the title – yet. An architect by training, he interrupted rabbinical studies in Buenos Aires and has been working as an architect; while Amitai has left him limited time for academics, by May he hopes to earn his official rabbinical credentials from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

Thirsty to connect with Judaism

By contrast, Rabbi Mauricio Balter – probably the most prominent Meyer disciple in Israel – arrived in 1995 with an impressive resume of community and rabbinical experience in Argentina dating from his teenage years. Upon arrival, Balter took the pulpit in the Masorti Community of Kiryat Bialik, just north of Haifa, initiating a long list of voluntary and social justice projects. He was best-known for a program that brought 500 Jewish families to move from Latin America to Israel during the worst of the continent’s financial crisis. During his tenure in Kiryat Bialik, the number of families in his congregation swelled from 20 to 300, according to the Masorti movement.

After 15 years he moved south, and since 2010 he has served as the rabbi of Congregation Eshel Avraham in Be’er Sheva. He has also served in a number of national and international leadership roles in the movement, including president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, and member of the Administrative Committee and the Executive Council of the International Rabbinical Assembly.

“In the Diaspora, the synagogue is where you go to be Jewish, to meet other Jews and develop your Jewish identity, not just to pray. In Israel, of course, you don’t have to go to synagogue to do that, and that has always been our challenge. But I feel like we are attracting people in a similar way – in our community, they still meet fellow travelers at the synagogue, people who have the same worldview. And I feel that our liberal outlook – the social activism, involvement, those kinds of activities – is starting to fit the new Israeli definition of what it is to be Jewish.”

He says the Israelis come in the door through social action projects: making sandwiches for children, service in battered women’s shelters and so forth. His congregation has an army of 80 volunteers. “After 18 years in Israel, I feel like people are thirsty to connect to their Jewishness, in a way that is not imposed on them. In the past eight years, every year and every day, they increasingly want to be connected.”

With their community orientation, focus on youth and openness to music in the synagogue, “it does seem that the rabbis who come from Latin America find it easier to adapt to the Israeli reality more quickly than rabbis from North America,” acknowledges Rabbi Andrew Sacks, Director of the Masorti Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and its Bureau of Religious Affairs.

The Meyer approach is a “healthy counterweight” to the more academic “North American, New York-centric” outlook cultivated at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he says. Out of the Buenos Aires Seminario, he said, “there has been new thinking, it has led to rabbis who think differently, more creatively, who are willing to taking more chances with tradition without departing from halakha (Jewish religious law) – overall, a more holistic approach.”

In addition to Balter, several other Latin American rabbis are serving in pulpits in Israel’s 50-odd Masorti synagogues, including Rabbi Shmuel Shaish in Eilat; Rabbi Gustavo Surazski in Ashkelon; Rabbi Sandra Kochmann, who was born in Paraguay, ordained at the Seminario and became the first female rabbi in Brazil; and Rabbi Marianella Kreiman, who immigrated to Israel from Chile in 2008 and runs the movement’s nationwide program making bar and bat mitzvah accessible to children with severe developmental disabilities.

“If there’s a secret,” muses Gustavo Gryncwajg, “it’s that people who come from our background feel the experience is the most important thing – that there is nothing more central to Jewish life than the emotional and experiential connection.

“Recently, I was asked to do a ceremony in a second-grade class and when the principal asked the teacher what kind of rabbi to bring in, the teacher said she wanted a Latin American. So maybe there really is something in our outlook.”

Gryncwajg pauses and chuckles: “But when you think about it, it’s ironic when you try to contrast the ‘warm’ South American community style with that of English-speakers or Americans and claim that we’re somehow better at this because we are Latin American. Because after all, who taught us this style of spiritual leadership? A North American rabbi.”