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Warming Jewish souls in Chile: an interview with Rebbetzin Debbie Waissbluth of Santiago

C. B. Gavant

She was born and bred in Great Neck, New York, an area famous for its suburban lifestyle, the US Merchant Marine Academy, and large Jewish community. So how did she end up a rebbetzin in Santiago, Chile, a Catholic, Spanish-speaking city with many museums, pollution, and a minuscule Jewish population?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Santiago is a city of contrasts — a bustling, modern city set in the center of a mostly third-world region. With the Andes Mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, Santiago is a massive metropolitan center, complete with a sophisticated subway system, world-renowned universities, and thriving commercial centers. It is also the home of 80 percent of Chile’s Jewish community and the site of one of the busiest kiruv networks in Latin America.

The majority of the Jews in Chile are descendants of immigrants from Germany, Eastern Europe, Greece, and Yugoslavia, who arrived in the years before and after World War II. Although culturally Jewish, most have very little Torah knowledge; this is why Debbie Waissbluth and her husband, Rabbi Chaim Waissbluth, have such a receptive audience. As the rabbi and rebbetzin of Aish HaTorah Chile, the Waissbluths are at the forefront of a growing kiruv movement in a population thirsty to learn about its heritage.

But how did a young New Yorker come to be an instrumental force in a community on the opposite side of the equator?


The Address on the Napkin

Debbie’s story begins years ago, when she was still in high school. Always cause-driven and involved in various pursuits, Debbie excelled in Spanish, a skill her mother recognized as valuable. When she decided to major in speech therapy in college, her mother encouraged her to continue studying Spanish, pointing out that the ability to speak Spanish would increase her earning potential in the field. Little did they know where else this would take her. 

In the meantime, Debbie had begun traveling to Eretz Yisrael on her semester breaks to learn more about Yiddishkeit. “My parents, unfortunately, were very nervous about the security situation in Eretz Yisrael, and every time I went they were terrified,” says Debbie. “When the second intifada broke out, they begged me to come home, and that was the end of that!”

Debbie dutifully returned home, but she found herself itching to travel again and looked around for somewhere else to go. A seminary friend, Chana Libedinsky, mentioned Rabbi Avi and Shira Horowitz, the North American rav and rebbetzin living in Santiago, Chile, who had been instrumental in her path to Yiddishkeit. Chana scribbled Rabbi Horowitz’s e-mail address on a napkin, and Debbie came across it several months later in Maryland.

“All kinds of things started happening, and before I knew it I had decided to travel to Chile,” Debbie relates. She planned to go for five months and participate in a foreign study program.

Things didn’t go exactly according to plan, though, since a student strike broke out as soon as Debbie arrived. For three of the five months she spent in Chile, there were no classes to attend, and Debbie gradually found herself, with the Horowitzes’ encouragement, getting involved in the Jewish community. Although her Spanish was rudimentary at this point, she learned quickly.


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