The Rabbi Who Became an Environment Minister and Calls the Pope His 'Rav'

Sergio Bergman, the Argentinian pharmacist-turned-rabbi-turned-politician, says his latest career choices were all inspired by his 'rabbi': Pope Francis

Rabbi Sergio Bergman sworn in as Argentina's environment minister.
Presidency of Argentina

When Argentina's new government was sworn in earlier this month, most ministers took their oath on a Christian Bible. But there was one politician who brought his own holy text, a Hebrew Bible with just the Old Testament. That was Rabbi Sergio Bergman, Argentina's newly-minted environment minister.

He may be the only rabbi holding a government post outside Israel, but Christianity, and one very Christian leader in particular, played a key role in inspiring Bergman to enter politics and take on the mantle of defender of the environment.

The 53-year-old rabbi, who wears a large knitted skullcap, readily admits that it was his friendship with the Argentine-born Pope Francis – known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio until he became pontiff – that led him to his recent career choices.

"Bergoglio is the reason I got into politics in Argentina. When someone asks me why would I, as a rabbi and also as someone with little background on this issue take on this role, I answer back that before you ask me why, you must ask Bergoglio why, too," Bergman said in an interview with Haaretz.

Protecting the environment "is a moral issue and we will end up destroying the planet if we don't change things. This comes from my lessons with Bergoglio, whom I see as a true rav," he said, using the Hebrew term for rabbi.

Bergman has written several books including "A Gospel According to Francisco," which details his relationship with Bergoglio when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and is based on the thoughts and teachings of Francis that Bergman collected during their meetings and conversations.  

Bergman says that his desire to protect the environment stems also from reading "Laudato si'," the pope's second encyclical, published earlier this year, in which Francis criticizes consumerism and irresponsible development while warning about the dangers of global warming. The document "is my guide and my bible on environmental issues," Bergman told Haaretz in a phone interview last week.

Discussing his environmental policies, he said Argentina has so far lagged behind in the fight against global warming and pledged the country would stand by the agreement signed earlier this month at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, which aims to reduce emissions to a level that will keep the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

Earlier this year, the rabbi also introduced a bill in the parliament of Mercosur (the South American trade bloc) that would make the Southern Ocean region of the Antarctica a protected area and restrict human activities in the surrounding waters.

Bergman stepped into politics during the 2011 mayoral elections of Buenos Aires, briefly running for mayor as an independent before withdrawing his candidacy to join the conservative Mauricio Macri, who won that election and went on to take the presidency in the national vote last month. Over the last years, the rabbi has served as a municipal official and a lawmaker for Macri's Propuesta Republicana party.

Bergman, who lives with his wife and four children in the northern Buenos Aires suburb of Nunez, started his career as a pharmacist. In 1992 he went on to study at the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Argentina, where he was ordained a Conservative rabbi, and in 2001 he was chosen to lead Templo Libertad, the oldest Jewish congregation in the country, which was founded in the mid-19th century.

In 1993 he moved to Israel for a couple of years where he completed his Master of Education at Hebrew University and afterwards went on to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City where he received his Master of Arts in Jewish Studies.

Despite being a rabbi who entered politics, Bergman feels that Orthodox rabbis holding political posts in Israel could not serve as role models for him.

"What I learned in Israel is the absolute opposite of what I do in Argentina," he said, criticizing the role of religion in the Jewish state.

"I would like for Israel to be a Jewish yet secular state and for all religions and different variations of Judaism to be accepted equally by Israel and not require an appeal to the Supreme Court, which is what happens today," he said, referring to the supremacy of Orthodox Judaism over other streams of the religion in Israel. "Religious leaders in politics only look out for their sector's interests. I was voted by the citizens of Argentina, the majority of whom are not Jewish, and my role in government is not for the interests of the Jewish community but for Argentina as a nation."

There is however at least one issue concerning the Jewish community that is very close to Bergman's heart: the investigation into the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people and left hundreds injured in the deadliest terror attack in the country's history.

Macri has pledged to cancel the agreement signed by his predecessor, the left-leaning Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, to investigate the bombing jointly with Iran.

The deal had been soundly criticized at home and abroad, as Tehran was seen by many – including, according to recent revelations, Kirchner's own foreign minister – as responsible for the attack.

Bergman said Kirchner's policy was the result of her close ties with the socialist government of Venezuela, a country that Macri now seeks to expel from Mercosur over rights abuses.

"The previous relationship between us and Iran was a direct result of Venezuela. Cristina Kirchner used very worrisome expressions leading to anti-Israeli sentiment in Argentina because of Venezuela," Bergman said. "Argentina will change its relationship with Iran and the memorandum (on the AMIA investigation). We want to keep relations only with reasonable countries."

Bergman said he believes relations with Israel will improve, though he blamed the previous government for skewing many Argentinians' views on the Middle East conflict.

"Cristina used the term Palestinian in a certain way to support Venezuela and the agreement with Iran. She presented images of Palestinians as victims of the terrorist actions caused by Israel and used them for her agenda," he said. "I believe that anti-Zionism is a new form of anti-Semitism. To blame Israelis for the deaths of all the Palestinians can lead to hating Jews."

Still, Bergman noted that, as a rabbi who has just been elected to public office, he is the living embodiment of the fact that "Argentina cannot be an anti-Semitic country."