Argentina makes history by electing rabbi to parliament

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buenos aires, argentina  |  When he takes the oath of office in December as a new member of Argentina’s lower house of parliament, Rabbi Sergio Bergman will eschew the Christian Bible used by other legislators in favor of the Five Books of Moses.

Bergman, whose PRO party won 34.5 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections on Oct. 27, is believed to be the only rabbi seated in a national parliament outside Israel.

PRO, which Bergman leads, edged the runner-up UNEN party, which captured just over 32 percent, making Bergman the first Argentine rabbi to win a seat as a national lawmaker.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman is shown campaigning for his PRO party, which came in first in Argentine elections on Oct. 27.

Trained in biochemistry and pharmacology, Bergman abandoned a career with the German pharmaceutical giant Boehringer Ingelheim for the rabbinate.

Bergman, 51, has four children, is the author of five books and is recognized internationally. He founded a network of Jewish schools and educational projects that includes a gay alliance and a rural farm. In May he received the Micah Award from the World Union for Progressive Judaism for his commitment to social justice at the organization’s convention in Jerusalem.

But he is also recognized beyond the Jewish community as a leading thinker on the issues of spirituality and interfaith activism.

Pope Francis, then Buenos Aires Archbishop Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wrote in a prologue to Bergman’s 2008 book “Argentina Ciudadana,” or “Argentina Citizen,” that the rabbi uses the Bible “as an inspiration to build a basis of our civic behavior and elaborates the fundamentals of a civil spirituality.”

Bergman lives in the middle-class Belgrano neighborhood, where the seminary and most of the city’s Conservative congregations are located.

At one time he was a member of two rabbinical organizations — the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis. But in 2012, he resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly, citing his failure to get rabbis from both movements to work together.

Bergman launched his political career in 2011, when he was tapped by Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri to lead his PRO party’s list for the municipal legislature.

As a legislator, Bergman employed unorthodox methods to reduce tensions in the city, organizing a day of meditation for legislative employees and installing a popcorn machine in his office.

Throughout his political career, Bergman has not hid his Jewishness. Indeed, he has celebrated it, wearing his colorful yarmulke at his public appearances. At a recent campaign rally, his speech was full of biblical allusions, saying citizens needed to join together in “building the holy land of the city of Buenos Aires in order to develop the promised land of Argentina.”

In the 2011 election, he wanted to be listed on the ballot as “Rabbi Sergio Bergman.” Opponents challenged the bid, and a court ruled eventually that while Bergman might be well known as a rabbi, his title suggests positive connotations that are inappropriate for an election ballot.

In a country only three decades removed from dictatorship, the acknowledgment was seen as a democratic advance.

Argentina is “in a deep crisis of values,” Bergman told JTA. “I believe that Torah can also be taught in the legislature. I’m against the union of state and religion. I’m in favor of the separation of church and state, but also in favor of putting deep values in politics.”

Bergman dismisses concerns about embracing such a high public profile in a Jewish community that still lives in the shadow of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center that killed 84 and injured hundreds.

“I’m not worried about prejudices; in fact, non-Jews love me more than Jews,” Bergman said. “If the society knows us better, the level of anti-Semitism will become lower.

“I receive criticisms that I’m on the right or that I ask for law and order, but nobody criticizes me for being Jewish. If I am attacked for being a rabbi, the first to come out to defend me are the non-Jews.”

A fellow alumnus of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, Daniel Fainstein, says much has changed since Argentina restored democracy in 1983, and Jews are now much more visible in the public arena.

“For some people, this situation can potentially increase anti-Semitism through the high visibility of a political figure who is a rabbi,” Fainstein said. “For others, it’s a symbol of the full integration of the Jews in the national society.”