Hernán Rustein (right) at the Vatican, where he sang in 2014. (Fotografia Felici)
Hernán Rustein (right) at the Vatican, where he sang in 2014. (Fotografia Felici)

Latin America’s rising ‘passion’ for Reform Judaism coming to Bay Area this Shabbat

Argentine cantor and rabbinical student Hernán Rustein feels as if he is making history.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “We’re doing it out of passion. Passion is the word.”

The 31-year-old Rustein is part of the first cohort to study at a new rabbinical school that aims to support the Reform movement in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries around the world. He’s going to speak about the project, along with Roberto Graetz, rabbi emeritus at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, as part of a Shabbat service and dinner Dec. 6 at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

The Ibero American Institute for Reform Rabbinical Education was set up by the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Latin American branch in 2017 to meet a need for Reform clergy in Central and South America, where the Reform movement is gaining steam but isn’t as big as in the United States.

“There is a great demand for growth,” said Graetz, who spent a quarter century at Temple Isaiah, but who is, like Rustein, a native of Argentina. “And we just don’t have the people.”

Graetz was instrumental in setting up the institute, which functions mainly online. He said the institute reflects a growing interest in Reform Judaism in Latin America — a movement that is still in early days. For comparison, he said, “Look at where American Judaism was 30, 40 years ago.”

Rustein is currently cantor as well as CEO of the historic Templo Libertad in Buenos Aires, which has both traditional and egalitarian worship services. He said Reform Judaism is becoming more attractive based on its inclusiveness to interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews and people who wouldn’t be considered Jews because they were not born of a Jewish mother.

Templo Libertad, a synagogue in Buenos Aires that holds both traditional and egalitarian services. (Wikimedia/En.planicie CC BY-SA 3.0)
Templo Libertad, a synagogue in Buenos Aires that holds both traditional and egalitarian services. (Wikimedia/En.planicie CC BY-SA 3.0)

“The Reform movement comes to say, ‘Hey, you’re OK,’” he said. “‘Your Judaism is OK.’”

Rustein said Reform Judaism offers people a Jewish home that they may not otherwise find and it’s important to have local clergy who promote that.

“That’s our message,” he said. “That’s what we want to bring to the table. That’s what we want to give as an option to people.”

The institute, now in its second school year, is a six-year program that is primarily conducted online, although students do meet in person a few times each year. Currently there are 19 students from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Spain. Graetz said that before this, in Argentina, rabbis were trained in the non-pluralistic Conservative seminario. That’s where Rustein started his own training. But it didn’t feel like the right fit.

“We were asked to be halachic, and perhaps we didn’t really feel that was our option,” he said.

Rustein felt this in his own life. He got married this year and his wife is not Jewish.

“It was not possible for a rabbinical student to do this two years ago,” he said.

But training to be a Reform rabbi has given him a place to learn in an environment that feels right. And it’s creating that rightness for others that motivates him, especially when he thinks of the times he’s participated in rituals and ceremonies for trans people, adopted children, gay couples and others who don’t feel at home in Conservative or Orthodox traditions.

“That creates a space of feeling … what’s the word? Proud,” Rustein said. “Proud of what we’re doing.”

“World Union Shabbat”

6.15 p.m. Dec. 6 with Rabbi Roberto Graetz and Hernán Rustein, followed by optional 7:30 p.m. dinner to benefit Ibero American Institute for Reform Rabbinical Education. At Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. $35-$40 for dinner; RSVP by Dec. 3.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.