Uruguay’s tight-knit Jewish community was stunned last month when a prominent Jewish businessman was murdered in Paysandu, a small city 235 miles north of the country’s capital. David Fremd, a beloved leader in the Jewish community, was stabbed ten times in the back while the assailant shouted, “Allahu Akbar.”
Antisemitism is rare in this small Latin American country, known for its tolerance and liberal views. But, says Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, that seems to be shifting. “Before people were ashamed to express themselves as anti-semites, but since the last war in Gaza, that taboo has been broken. Now, on social media and in some circumstances, the sentiment is hostile.”
Shemtov, who has been in Montevideo since 1985, came at the behest of the local community. Leaders at the time were concerned about the Jewish community’s viability, and so they wrote to organizations around the world, requesting help. Only the Rebbe responded.
Within 48 hours, a group of rabbinical students were dispatched, among them, Shemtov. When the 23-year-old married later that year, the Rebbe sent him back with his new wife as his permanent representatives to Uruguay.
“It wasn’t even a third world country then,” Mrs. Rochi Shemtov recalls. There were no malls, homes weren’t equipped with phones with direct international access, and people were afraid to walk in the streets without ID cards as the dictatorship’s aura still lingered. When Rochi gave birth to the couple’s first child a few months later, the nurses were on strike and there was no electricity in the hospital. A skeleton staff delivered Mendy via c-section, armed with only a flashlight for illumination.
Despite the grit, and there was a lot of it in those early days, the Shemtovs soldiered on. But what they found, surprised them.
The Uruguayan Jewish community is strongly, vocally Zionistic and equally secular. “We came with a lot of answers to questions people didn’t have,” remembers Rabbi Shemtov. “The people couldn’t care less. I told them that we came to build a swimming pool of Judaism. Some people would want to swim in the deep end, others would paddle in the shallow section and even more would hang out at the edge of the pool. But we were here to help everyone according to their level.”
Slowly, lap by lap, their efforts paid off. And now, as they begin their fourth decade in the country, Chabad is a significant voice on the Jewish scene.
And that little baby, delivered in daunting circumstances three decades ago, has become a leader.
“He’s a different kind of rabbi. He was born here, he understands us, he knows what we need,” says Alan Gejer, a fellow native Uruguayan. Years ago, when Gejer was an active leader in a Zionist youth group, he met Rabbi Shemtov senior. He was inspired by the rabbi’s zeal for Judaism, but as the years passed, he lost contact and joined a different congregation. That didn’t last. When Gejer was to be married in March, and he needed a rabbi to officiate at his wedding, he looked for Shemtov.
And he found his son.
“We started talking, Rabbi Mendy and I and his wife, Musya, and my fiance͐e. They’re young like us, and we made a lot of farbrengens, like they call it. We really became good friends.” Gejer’s wedding was the first at which the youthful rabbi officiated, producing an “emotional, sensitive” experience for the broad guest list. “It was a very special moment for my wife and me, and it was a very special moment for him. I was not only nervous at the chuppah, he was too!”
Since reconnecting with Chabad, Gejer has attended Shabbat and holiday services. “I know he will marry a lot more people here,” says the 29-year old. “He started a new way to connect with young people, and my friends are coming now too. We aren’t religious, but Judaism is important to us and something we want to transmit to our family.”
Rabbi Mendy is building on his parents’ success. Chabad of Uruguay presently offers a kosher eatery and bakery, as well as a Hebrew school, mikvah, and a slew of classes and activities that cater to all segments of the community. “It’s very satisfying to see a child come back to our community,” says his father. “He is willing and able to continue our work here and the people know and love him.”
“He changed the way people view Judaism in Uruguay,” says Stephen Jakter, an architect. “People think it’s closed; they only wear black hats, black suits. But Mendy changed the mentality for young people here.”
Jakter is involved with helping the Shemtovs grow the community. He points to the High Holidays as a prime example of its growth: they couldn’t haul extra chairs in quickly enough to meet the growing crowd’s needs.
“Mendy has new and newer ideas. You don’t like classes? OK, get involved with giving tzeddaka [charity] to people who need food. You prefer a Shabbat meals over services? Come. You like kosher food? Sit in the bakery, have a coffee, read something about Judaism. Really, he wants to involve everyone.”
Last year, a friend dared Shemtov to walk through the capital city for ten hours, captured on a GoPro. Similar to a social experiment conducted in Paris, the friend wanted to witness and record local responses to a rabbi in their midst. As a child, Shemtov walked half an hour, in full Shabbat regalia, to synagogue with his father each week. His fellow Jews, though, many Holocaust survivors or their descendants, were less comfortable showing their Judaism on the street. This was to be an important test for the community.
He walked all over town, stopping to give directions, to talk with people about Judaism, and to take a selfie with an admirer. “There was no hatred,” Shemtov said later, “only respect and blessings.” The video, condensed into a two-minute clip, went viral.
But, of course, that respect wasn’t evident in all corners of the country.
At Fremd’s funeral, Shemtov senior spoke about the man he had met 32 years before, when he was a traveling yeshiva student. “He didn’t look to leave the little town he was in, but rather, he felt that G-d had put him there for a purpose,” recalls Shemtov. “He wasn’t a rabbi or on anyone’s payroll, but he felt that he could make Paysandu a better, more G-dly place. And he really did.
“We are all interconnected. If we can follow David’s example and bring goodness to our own little corners, it will change the world for good.”