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Santiago, Chile - Torah Revival: A Rabbi Stoking The Embers In Chile

Published on: January 1, 2012 12:23 PM
By: Mishpacha Magazine y Avi Friedman
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He was just months away from a PhD in Physics at Cal-Tech, when his one-year leave for yeshivah turned into a lifetime calling — eventually bringing him back to the Chile of his secular youth. Today Rabino Matias Libedinsky (L) might be aptly described as the face of Santiago’s. PHOTO: Daniel Segal, Luis Hidalgo Parra for Mishpacha MagazineSantiago, Chile - When Matias Libedinsky left his hometown of Santiago, Chile to pursue a PhD in physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1998, he said goodbye to a typical, small Diaspora Jewish community. Though about 15,000 Jews lived in Chile, its Jewish community bore little semblance to South America’s strong Torah communities in Brazil and Argentina, both home to many shuls and Torah learning programs. From a Jewish perspective Santiago was a poor backwater. Assimilation and intermarriage were rampant, kosher food available, but scarce and expensive, and the three Orthodox synagogues and a mikveh were basically unused.

Fast forward to 2011, and Jewish Santiago bears little resemblance to that “poor backwater.” Kosher food is freely available. Hundreds of people pack five shuls every Shabbos, dozens more take part in daily and weekly Torah learning programs. There are two K-12 Jewish schools and post–high school yeshivah study in Israel is becoming the norm. With several kosher restaurants to boot, Santiago’s religious community is thriving in a way most cities only dream about.


And Matias Libedinsky, the secular university student on the cusp of physics fame, helped bring it about.

Looking for G-d For a fourth-generation Chilean in a irreligious family in Santiago, “rosh kollel” was just about the last position the teenaged Matias Libedinsky envisioned for himself. In school, he was a brilliant mathematician and budding scientist, with two gold medals in the local Math Olympics. After graduation, the natural progression was a physics degree from Universidad de Chile, graduate study in the US, and a senior research position there.
Rabbi Matthias Libedinsky
“My parents were both avowed atheists in those years, even though now they have come a lot closer to Judaism,” he says. “Both my parents are Jewish, but they both just ‘happened’ to marry other Jews. We didn’t celebrate any festival. I remember going to shul one time, on Yom Kippur, but that was it.”

But along the way his atheist beliefs began to cloud. The sciences were too perfect, mathematics and the natural world coincided too exactly, and toward the end of his undergraduate studies, he started to believe there was an ultimate Creator, a Superpower who designed the wonders of the natural world.

Still, the road from there to Judaism wasn’t clear cut. “At university I was student protest leader; we were always demonstrating for social causes,” recalls Rabbi Libedinsky. “I became religious, but not Jewish religious. I was searching for G-d, but didn’t even know there was such a thing as Orthodox Jews. So I spoke to Reform rabbis, Christians of many different denominations, Hare Krishnas, and lots of other folks. None of them had anything real to offer me. Reform Jews told me the mitzvos were ‘cultural practices unique to Jews.’ Christians told me I should ‘do things for blind faith’ but didn’t say very much about G-d. And I was looking for G-d.”

Libedinsky’s turn to Orthodoxy came from an unexpected source: his father. Alberto Libedinsky had heard rumors from his son’s university friends that Matias had developed some religious feelings, but he wasn’t sure how to react when Matias asked to have a serious son-to-father talk.

“Papa,” he said, “I have to tell you I believe in G-d. I don’t know very much more than that or what it really means for my life in practical terms, but it is important to me that you understand how strong this is for me. I’m not sure what it all means, really, but it’s very important to me to get in touch with people who have a strong belief in G-d.”

Alberto directed him to Rabbi Shoshan Guri, the rabbi of the shul in Santiago at the time, but the thought of speaking to an Orthodox rabbi was “too weird” for the budding physicist. “I imagined this sloppy guy with a big beard, sidecurls, the works,” laughs Matias. “But I called the rabbi thinking ‘Nu, what have I got to lose?’ and I got the shock of my life when I went to meet Rabbi Guri. He didn’t have a beard, so I thought it was the rabbi’s son. We started chatting, but I was really just waiting for the rabbi to show up!”

That meeting led to another one, this time with Rabbi Avi Horowitz, principal of the newly opened Maimonides school, the local Orthodox day school. When they sat down to speak, Matias listened in horror as the rabbi laid out the “outrageous” case for Torah Judaism.

“He told me ‘we do mitzvos because G-d told us to do so at Har Sinai.’ I thought he was insane, and quite probably dangerous. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I remember looking around for a window to jump out of. I was planning my escape route — I still remember every detail of the room, that’s how scared I was,” recounts Libedinsky.

The hook that brought Matias in off the virtual ledge came from an unexpected direction: Mesorah, or tradition. Horowitz drew a timeline tracing the heritage of the Jewish People back through the generations, to the Chofetz Chaim, the Vilna Gaon, the Shulchan Aruch, Rambam, Rishonim, Geonim, through the Gemara, and all the way to King David. That focus, and the notion that observant Jews were taking part in a chain of history back to Biblical times and were connected to the great legends of the Jewish People, gave Matias a strong push in the mitzvah direction.
Rabbi Matias Libedinsky at a chuppah ceremony
Just One Year Left Matias left Chile to complete his PhD in physics at Cal-Tech in Pasadena, California. But while there, he connected with the religious community in Los Angeles, about an hour’s drive away. Eventually his religious inclinations moved him to take a one-year leave of absence to learn Torah in Israel — a year shy of completing his PhD.

Alberto Libedinsky says he supported his son’s decision — with reservations.

“He had a profound religious need at that moment; it had been growing for years,” remembers Matias’s father. “I could see he needed this, so the only thing I asked him was, ‘Don’t just leave the doctorate. Tell them you’re taking time off, maybe even do some work on it in Israel.’ He agreed in principle, but I could tell he wasn’t going back. Usually when a 20-something kid announces he’s leaving his career for something like this, it is very upsetting to a parent. But Matias wasn’t like that. He was crystal clear about what he wanted to do. That was very comforting to me, as a father.”
Libedinsky’s first stop in Israel was Yeshivas Darche Noam/David Shapell College, a beginner’s yeshivah in Jerusalem’s Beit HaKerem neighborhood. At the time, he could barely make out the phonetic sounds of the Hebrew alphabet, but learning how to learn went quickly.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone like Matias,” says Rav Yitzhak Hirshfeld, rosh yeshivah of Darche Noam/Shapell’s. “Our yeshivah program is geared to teach most beginners the ins-and-outs of Gemara learning over two or three years. Matias rose through the ranks so quickly that it was a challenge to the yeshivah. After a year and a half he’d exhausted what we had to teach him here, and we arranged for him to move to the Yeshivas Beis Yisrael kollel in Neve Yaakov, headed by Rav Nosson Weisz. After a short time in kollel, Matias had a depth to his learning many guys don’t reach in a lifetime of learning.

“He and Chana had just gotten married when they came to learn here (Chana enrolled at Midreshet Rachel, Darche Noam’s women’s division) and they had no money at all. As a couple they made tremendous sacrifices for Torah. He was absolutely determined to get to the very top of the pyramid,” Rav Hirshfeld recounts.

Going Home Again Prior to World War I, Chile’s Jewish community was comprised mainly of Eastern European Jews. Although between ten and twelve thousand European Jews did enter the country during the 1930s, very few Holocaust refugees viewed Chile as a destination to rebuild their shattered lives. The community Jewish school was secular, and the one traditional synagogue and mikveh were both largely unused. By the 1960s, Chile’s Jews were essentially assimilated.

To combat this, Canadian businessman and philanthropist Dov Friedberg established a kollel in Santiago in the mid-1970s. When that fizzled out in the 1990s, Friedberg opened Collegio Maimonides, Santiago’s first Orthodox Jewish day school and asked his son-in-law, Rabbi Avi Horowitz, to oversee it.
Though he’s hesitant to admit it, much of the credit for the renaissance of Torah Judaism in Santiago belongs to Rabino Matias, the native son who returned to Chile in 2007 to teach at Maimonides and to head a new kollel, Morasha, for university-aged students.

“I was excited to have the opportunity to spend my mornings and afternoons learning, and to have the chance to interact with students at classes in the evening,” he admits.

Today, hundreds of students attend Morasha classes each week, and the Aish HaTorah shul, headed by Matias’s childhood friend and Chile native Rabbi Chaim Waissbluth, has a 200+ Shabbos attendance.

To gauge the program’s success, one need look no farther than Diego Tchimino, a 23-year-old university student who first came to the kollel a year-and-a-half ago. He described Rabino Matias as an approachable, powerful leader.

“My older sister became religious a few years ago, and suggested I meet Rav Matias. We connected immediately. I started going to two classes a week and I learned about prayer and how a physical human being in this world can connect with Hashem, Who is not physical and exists beyond the realm of the physical world. His classes are fun and he’s a jokester, and mostly he’s really a friend as well as teacher,” says Tchimino.

“Matias is a very warm person, but in an intellectual way,” Rav Hirschfeld qualified his former student. “He engages people on their intellectual level and he’s smart enough to take their questions and have the discussion, of both scientific and religious topics, at the very highest level. It makes for a lively discussion that would challenge anybody.”

Juggling Act Serving as rabbi in the community you grew up in before you were even religious can be difficult, but Matias says the hardest thing about serving the community is compromising on his own Torah learning after being seven intensive yeshivah years in Jerusalem. Although he learns full morning and afternoon sedarim with two yungeleit in the kollel, Rabbi Efraim Sauer and Rabbi Eli Sades, and then teaches university students from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m, he acknowledges it’s a long way from a 500-person beis medrash.

He credits Rav Hirshfeld and Rav Weisz with providing living examples of how to respond to peoples’ questions and challenges.

“We certainly have gedolim for major halachic questions [he’s been approached about issues like mamzerus], I think it is much more difficult to deal with the day-to-day issues of people asking for help in their avodas Hashem, people having trouble with their faith in G-d, things like that. The answers to those questions don’t come from books. You’ve got to hone in on what a person is really asking, especially if the question is a challenge about G-d or Torah. What’s he really asking? Does he really want a connection here, with me? What’s the best way to make him feel welcome and accepted?
“That’s something I learned from both Rav Weisz and Rav Hirshfeld, that one of the hardest parts is to understand what’s really bothering the person. You’ve got to really listen, not only to what the person is saying, but just as much to what he isn’t saying. It’s a skill I saw from both rabbis many times,” says Matias.

To illustrate, Rabbi Libedinsky said a community member called him asking advice about his grandparents who were very ill at the time. The man said he knew, spiritually, that he should pray for them, but his mind was telling him prayer doesn’t help.

“I let him finish talking. When he was calmer, I said, ‘You know prayer helps. What’s going on inside that you suddenly think it doesn’t?’

“Eventually he came out with it. He said he feels mitzvos have no effect on This World, only on Olam HaBa, so there’s no point praying for the sick. So I reinterpreted it a little bit for him — I told him to imagine coming home with a present for his wife, and then she made him a terrific dinner to say thank you. Did he buy the gift because he wanted the nice dinner, or because he wanted a deep relationship with her?

“So that’s the way it is with praying. We pray because we want a relationship with Hashem. It’s true the main s’char is in Olam HaBa, but there is also a plus, the ‘dinner,’ even though that is not the ikar,” explains Matias. 

Communal Conflict While the community’s growth is impressive, it has also been the source of some tension in a city far removed from Jewish observance for so long. The increased observance on a communal level has led to a healthy dose of animosity from community old-timers who were raised with suspicion or outright hostility to religious practice. In addition, internal family conflicts arose when some early kiruv attempts were not conducted in a professional manner.

“You had cases where kids got turned on to Torah but it caused them to fight with their families,” said Rabbi Avi Horowitz. “That led some people to say that Torah Judaism was responsible for destroying families.

“Now we are teaching people in a more nuanced way. And so many locals have become observant yet stayed close to their irreligious families that no one can level empty accusations against us.”

Perhaps the best place to evaluate this is from the perspective of Matias’s father. As a third-generation Chilean, Alberto is fiercely proud of both his nonobservant community and his very observant son and grandchildren. 

“Yes, there are tensions sometimes, but I think they can be overstated,” said Alberto. “On a family level, it can be tough for parents to understand that their children suddenly want to keep kosher, which requires some extra effort for them to eat in their parents’ homes. Some people just cannot see why it is so important to the kids. But I think a great deal of it has to do with the overall family dynamic. Having religious kids can definitely present a challenge, but healthy families can deal with it if they want to.”

Alberto said having two local boys —Matias and Rabbi Chaim Waissbluth — head the community also dissipates tensions. That they are native Spanish speakers and understand the local culture helps endear them to the community. On a personal level, he remembers these two young rabbis as little boys playing together and — although not observant himself — gets a special sense of satisfaction seeing them now working together to further Santiago’s Judaism.

With one qualification: “On a communal level, Israel is a central part of Jewish identity for most of my generation,” he says. “It’s probably unfair to a certain degree, but many of the community’s secular leaders find it upsetting that this new generation doesn’t feel a strong link with Israel.”
To answer that concern, Matias takes particular care to ensure Israel has a central role for his family and students.

“Every summer I lead a trip to Israel for young people from the community. There are usually two groups — one combines lots of travel with some Torah study, the other goes to yeshivah. It’s important to me that they, and my own children, have a connection with Eretz Yisrael.”

No Plans to Leave Asked whether he is in Chile to stay, Rabino Matias gives a roundabout answer. He talks about community growth in recent years and says religious communities around the world have noticed. Since Matias attended Darche Noam a decade ago, the community has sent a steady stream of students to learn there. Rav Nosson Weisz, in his capacity as head of Aish HaTorah’s Latin America program in Israel, began a tradition of visiting once a year, and Santiago is very much on the map for leading speakers and rabbis around the world. In the past few years, guests have included Rabbis Paysach Krohn, Hanoch Teller, Noach Orlowek, and others.

And those visitors create a circular effect within the community, as well as for Matias and his family: the Torah and wisdom they glean from their guests contributes to the community’s sense of purpose and cohesion, which in turn drives people to learn more Torah, to increase their observance, or at the very least to sympathize with religious life. Young people attracted to observance give the community a strong sense of vitality, which attracts these, and other big-name speakers, to Chile. It’s not Jerusalem, he said, but there is a vitality and excitement in Chile related to the baal teshuvah background of most of the community. That’s not something the Libedinskys are keen to give up.

And what about his PhD in physics?
“You know, physicists are concerned with unlocking the deepest secrets of the world. That’s what I’m trying to do here, and I’m proud to say that I think my ‘research’ here is going pretty well. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be at this stage in my life.

“If anyone’s looking for an idea for a PhD thesis in physics, they’re free to give me a call … but I don’t think I’ll be picking it up any time soon.”

Content provided courtesy of Mishpacha Magazine

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Read Comments (5)  —  Post Yours »


 Jan 01, 2012 at 12:37 PM Karpas Says:

Nice story, people who give back to their own, n o one does that anymore


 Jan 01, 2012 at 12:50 PM joek212 Says:

Considering that a Israeli was arrested for starting a forest fire in Chile I don't know if the headline for this article is so appropriate


 Jan 01, 2012 at 05:44 PM snoop Says:

Well I'm sorry too bananafrom2011, but I must question your quickness to state, based on one recent visit, that "all the thanks for what anything is going on in Chile is thanks to Chabad". I would like to be clear that I love all Jews and I think that what Chabad does for Jews globally is truly amazing, and Chile is no exception. However, I don't think it is fair or proper of you to dsimiss the very significant presence of other people and organizations dedicating their lives at great costs toward building and strengthening the Jewish community of Santiago. I happed to have visited the community 5 times over the past 13 years,, and each stay lasts a week or two. I know first hand that people besides Chabad have started and continue to maintain the majority of the thriving jewish community that is present there now. Again, it goes without saying that Chabad is wonderful and their efforts in Chile are also wonderful but to claim so flippantly that EVERYTHING (Jewish) in Chile is because of Chabad is simply untrue, and , more importantly, very disrespectful to the many other non-Chilean Jews who , believe it or not, have also given "dedication and mesiras nefesh"


 Jan 02, 2012 at 11:16 AM ALWAYSUNITED Says:

Please have ever you been chile? The chabad have an amazing setup but actually not so many members . The other shuls are really growing and WILL welcome anyone so why can we not be nice.

I am a chabad supporter but what about the time when I was in NY going to an event and I was really not welcome at all it happens .



 Jan 03, 2012 at 07:55 PM bannanafrom2011 Says:

i did not bash or sya that there is no credit to that communati... its just that when i visite there i see the great msiras nefesh that chabad has over there and golbaly, but the chabad rabbi is there over 30 years! and when i see an article that some one was chozer btshuvah only a cupple of years ago and puts his all the credit to him for rebulding something he didint... and not even mention of chabad at all!! when they have 4 mikvas, a betufull shull for 500+ and a preschool.............

but yeah i agree.... it was missed writin


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