Argentine Jew awes S.F. visitors

They knew it wasn't going to be a traditional Shabbat service, but nobody on the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's recent trip to Argentina was prepared for the wallop delivered by Alejandro Avruj.

During a visit to a synagogue in a working-class community on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the JCF travelers were dazzled by the charismatic Avruj, a 29-year-old spiritual leader with long brown hair, a hand-held microphone and four backup singers.

"It was a little like Andrew Lloyd Webber meets the Torah," said Susan Mall, the JCF's director of special projects and donor relations. "In a way, it was more entertaining than Glide Memorial Church [in San Francisco]. I never believed this would happen in a synagogue."

What happened was a spiritual, action-packed, sweaty Kabbalat Shabbat service led by Avruj. "It felt like a rock show," Mall said. "When he sang 'Oseh Shalom,' it was maybe better than James Taylor. It was that kind of impassioned, soulful performance."

Avruj sang "Let It Be" in Spanish, in addition to traditional Hebrew songs and prayers. He culminated the service by calling to the bimah the 20 members of the JCF contingent who attended the service.

"He got us up there, and we're hugging and kissing and singing and swaying," Mall said. "It really took our breath away."

JCF President Harold Zlot agreed. "It was absolutely terrific. Very uplifting and very exciting."

Mall's only regret was not getting a photograph. But when she tried, Avruj wagged his finger at her and she got the message: No cameras on Shabbat.

Although not an ordained rabbi, Avruj clearly has a following at the Tfilat Sholom Comunidad, where he has led services for five years. He is finishing his studies at the Seminario Rabbinico Latino Americano. Two years ago, he studied at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, focusing on Jewish community development.

Almost single-handedly, he has pumped life into what was nearly a defunct synagogue, with only about 10 members in the early '90s. On the night the JCF contingent was there, about 130 people attended.

"His reputation is spreading," Mall said. "Maybe in 10 years, when this guy becomes a mega-superstar, we'll be saying, 'Do you remember that night we shlepped out to that synagogue?'"

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.