In April 1936, as Nazi persecutions were battering the Jews of Germany and active anti-Semitism was on the rise throughout Europe, the Jewish community of Montevideo, Uruguay, founded the “Inca Shul,” formally known as Asociación Religiosa Israelita Beis Hakneseth Harischona. It attracted community residents and, over the next decade, appealed to hundreds of Jewish families fleeing Europe.

Like many congregations, the shul on Inca Street experienced its ebbs and flows over the decades, and was eventually shuttered five years ago, the last of eight synagogues in a once vibrant Jewish neighborhood. Rabbi Mendel Shemtov of Chabad-Lubavitch of Uruguay and community leader Bernardo Kelmanzon got together three years ago to launch a monthly lunch-and-learn program for local shop owners, businessmen and professionals that has been growing ever since, revitalizing both the synagogue and the community.

“Each month there is a current-events theme that Rabbi Shemtov analyzes from the perspective of Torah and that we all then discuss,” notes Kelmanzon, who points out that Beit Knesset, or synagogue, literally means “meeting house.”

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“While a Beit Knesset is primarily for prayer and study,” explains Kalmanzon, “it has always also been a place for Jews everywhere in the world to meet and debate political, cultural and social issues. The Beit Knesset can even be considered a precursor of WhatsApp, Internet forums, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter—the ‘meeting houses’ of so many Jewish people today.”

President Batlle's talk encompassed Israel, contemporary anti-Semitism and the Uruguayan Jewish community.
President Batlle's talk encompassed Israel, contemporary anti-Semitism and the Uruguayan Jewish community.

He believes, however, that conversations are so much more meaningful in person, “especially when accompanied by herring, knishes and gefilte fish.”

‘A Lesson to Be Learned’

A few weeks ago, in the midst of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, and a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world, there was what Shemtov called “a very special guest speaker”—the former president of the Republic of Uruguay, Dr. Jorge Batlle, who served as the nation’s president from 2001 to 2005. He is the son, nephew and grandson of former presidents, and remains an active force in the country’s political life.

Shemtov introduced Batlle by noting that Judaism has a special blessing that is recited when meeting a leader of a nation, and pointed out that the former president’s attendance was particularly appropriate during the Hebrew month of Elul, when a key theme of Chassidic thought is that “The King Is in the Fields.”

G‑d is in uniquely available and approachable in the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” said Shemtov. “And in everything that we experience in our daily lives, there is a lesson to be learned that can be used to strengthen our relationship with G‑d.”

In a wide-ranging talk that encompassed Israel, contemporary anti-Semitism and the Uruguayan Jewish community, Batlle, who is not Jewish, spoke glowingly about Chabad’s work in the country. He also fondly recalled his meeting while president with the rabbi’s father, Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Uruguay, who presented him with a menorah.

Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, second from left, gave the former president two gifts: One was copy of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.”
Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, second from left, gave the former president two gifts: One was copy of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.”

At the lunch and learn, Mendel Shemtov gave the former president two gifts: One was copy of “Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbiin Modern History,” the best-selling biography by Joseph Telushkin. The second present was something that Battle himself requested. Seeing that all the congregants were wearing either hats or skullcaps as Shemtov was about to blow the shofar, as is customary during the month of Elul, the president asked for a kipa of his own.

During his talk, Batlle expressed what Kelmanzon called a “real appreciation of the uniqueness of the Jewish people and its struggles then and now.” Picking up a broken tile from the synagogue floor, the former president humorously noted that “you still have lots of work to do.”

Yet he concluded with utmost seriousness, saying: “You people are an eternal people, and the Jewish people will live forever.”

President Batlle and congregants listen intently as Shemtov blows the shofar, as is customary during the month of Elul.
President Batlle and congregants listen intently as Shemtov blows the shofar, as is customary during the month of Elul.