Yemin Orde Youth Village

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post

Thanks to Prof. Shmuel Kornblit, the Spanish-speaking world has access to an incredible range of texts and Jewish educational resources in their mother tongue.

Thanks to the passion and hard work of an oleh from Argentina, the Spanish-speaking world has access to an incredible range of texts and Jewish educational resources in their mother tongue. 

Prof. Shmuel Kornblit, director of Spanish language programs at Herzog College, made aliyah at age 17, twice served as a shaliach (emissary) in Argentina and continues to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking Jews through a variety of in-person and online programs and resources. 

Kornblit’s deep connections to Israel and Judaism – and to the Spanish-speaking world – together with his deep curiosity, boundless energy and passion, fuel his desire to continuously expand the one-stop-shop Spanish-language website Masuah (www.masuah.org) he created five years ago. So far, over half a million people have visited the site. 

Kornblit’s love for Jewish texts and culture, and his devotion to sharing it with others have been growing since his childhood in Argentina. While Kornblit, 50, was not particularly observant as a boy, he can partially trace his connection to Jewish learning to his grandparents. They had immigrated to Argentina from Eastern Europe and learned in cheder, but stopped at age 14 due to everyday practicalities. “They had to work for a living,” reports Kornblit. 

Kornblit’s parents did not attend Jewish school though they did send Shmuel to a Jewish kindergarten “until it became too expensive.” They subsequently sent him to a public school, and he received only a modest Jewish and Hebrew education. He chuckles when he recalls, “I couldn’t read Hebrew. I learned the maftir for my bar mitzvah in transliteration [English characters]!”

 BEING INTERVIEWED on i24. (credit: Shmuel Kornblit)
BEING INTERVIEWED on i24. (credit: Shmuel Kornblit)

Kornblit’s bar mitzvah preparation sparked his interest in Jewish learning. He signed up for a course for 13- and 14-year-olds to learn to be a shaliach tzibur (prayer leader), and he joined Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Soon after becoming involved in Beitar, Kornblit announced to his parents that he would be making aliyah when he turned 17. 

His supportive parents somewhat surprisingly informed him, “We are also thinking of making aliyah!” In order to avoid leaving school in Argentina in the middle of a school year, they decided to move up Shmuel’s aliyah time frame. 

Kornblit enrolled at the Yemin Orde Youth Village, located on 77 acres atop Mount Carmel in northern Israel near Haifa. He describes it as a “school for new olim” and received quite an education in the many faces of Israel during his year and a half at the school. 

“In my class, there were Jews from Ethiopia and Iran, and Israelis from tough situations.” He adds playfully, “I was neutral!” Hearing the stories of these olim, including boys from Ethiopia coming to Israel on foot, helped Kornblit realize just how uneventful his own aliyah experience had been compared to theirs. 

“I thought to myself – how easy I had it. I went to the Jewish Agency in Buenos Aires and got a plane ticket!” 

Kornblit next explored options for army service. “I was looking for a context for the army and found a Garin Torani from Bnei Akiva – it was all Israelis except for me – 14 boys and 14 girls.” As part of garin nachal, he spent three years and eight months rotating between army service, yeshiva learning and work on Kibbutz Merav. 

After serving in the army, Kornblit decided to return to Argentina for two years. “Instead of doing a post army trip, I decided to go on shlichut.” The 22-year-old returned to Argentina five and a half years after making aliyah. On shlichut, the still rather young Kornblit was involved with many denominations and organizations within the Jewish community. He worked with Bnei Akiva, taught in both a Conservative shul and Reform temple, served as a shaliach tzibur, and studied a bit in a Chabad yeshiva. 

Kornblit’s shlichut from 1993 to 1995 meant being in close proximity to the July 18, 1994 AMIA suicide van bombing at the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (Argentine Israelite Mutual Association). The bombing is Argentina’s deadliest terrorist attack to date; 85 people were killed and hundreds were injured. “A friend I davened with the morning of the bombing was killed,” he recalls.

Kornblit quickly became involved in affairs related to the bombing. “Rabbi Avi Weiss came to Buenos Aires from America and I was his right-hand man, taking him around to speak with the press, government officials, etc.”

Kornblit returned to Israel after his shlichut and began studying Bible, Jewish History, Talmud and Jewish Thought at Bar Ilan University. He also spent time learning in the yeshiva at Bar Ilan. His formal education includes an MA in Bible, a teacher’s certificate in Talmud, rabbinic ordination, and doctoral course work in contemporary Judaism. 

IN 1996, Kornblit had a life-changing experience working with Latin American olim through the Masuah organization: “I spent one Shabbat with them and was made director.” This experience has impacted all of Kornblit’s work in Israel since. 

He served as director of Masuah for 25 years, facilitating activities for young immigrants from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries. “We organized one to two activities a month, and Shabbatons all around Israel to see different places and learn about different topics.” 

Kornblit was always mindful of the many needs of these young olim for resources in Spanish. “I also began thinking about older people and their need to access material in their native language.” 

He accumulated useful resources and started the Masuah website. “We created one of the biggest Spanish sites with information on Judaism, Zionism and Israel.” 

The site is comprehensive, with materials on the Jewish year, life cycle, Jewish texts, and activities for children, links to courses and more.

In 2001, the vegan-from-his teen-years Kornblit met his Belgian wife over a Shabbat dinner. He impressed the Spanish-speaking Belgian with both his vegan challah and the Spanish language benchers he had at the Shabbat dinner.

That same year, Kornblit founded the Yeshivat Hakotel program for Spanish speakers. He has had similar roles at Machon Meir and at the Machon Or Bnei Akiva program for women, and he continues to serve as an advisor to many Spanish-language yeshiva and seminary programs. 

In 2006, Kornblit returned to Buenos Aires for two more years of shlichut – this time with a wife – and with even more responsibilities than in his previous stints. He was responsible for Bnei Akiva in all of Latin America and taught several courses for Hillel. Kornblit also served as a shaliach for aliyah, traveling to Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico to discuss and facilitate aliyah from Latin and South America.

Back in Israel, Kornblit’s desire to bring Judaism and Jewish texts to the Spanish speaking world – both in person and online – continued. “It bothered me a lot that there was no Spanish-language Bible on the Internet. It was only in books, but not digital.” 

In 2016, he approached Herzog College with his idea. Herzog College’s, director of Bible Initiatives, Rabbi Dr. Shuki Reiss, encouraged him to expand his vision beyond the 929 chapters of the Bible. Reiss suggested that the Bible project also include Spanish-language commentaries, explanations, maps – even podcasts. 

The resource, www.hatanakh.com/es, was launched in November, 2020 and is currently used by Jewish teachers in 80 Jewish schools across Latin America.

While Kornblit’s many professional activities keep him busy, he manages to enjoy life in Jerusalem, the city he has called home for 19 years. He lives in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood with wife Irit, a linguistics researcher, and four daughters, ages nine, 12, 16 and 19. 

In his “free time,” the gregarious, always industrious Kornblit enjoys being a member of his local synagogue and giving divrei Torah in Hebrew – a welcome departure from the Spanish language which is so much part of his daily life in Israel. ■

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