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Argentine Custody Battle over Religion

Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit jta.org.

BUENOS AIRES, Nov. 25 (JTA)--Maximo Daniel "Lito" Weinstock knows too much about the sadness of being raised apart from one's parents.

After his parents divorced, Weinstock was sent to live in an Argentine asylum when he was only 6 years old. He endured years of frequent punishments and severe hardship there before escaping when he was 13.

So when it came to raise his own son after a divorce, Weinstock was determined that things would be different.

But it hasn't been easy.

Weinstock has waged a long campaign that turned into both a legal and religious battle--his ex-wife is Catholic and Weinstock is Jewish--and the case made it all the way to Argentina's Supreme Court.

In the process, Weinstock's crusade garnered national media attention in this Catholic country.

It began in the early 1980s when Weinstock and Blanca Rosa Cetera decided to divorce. At the time, the couple's son, Pablo, was 4.

The couple separated in the early 1980s but the divorce could not be made official until years later, since divorce did not become legal in Argentina until 1987.

Shortly after the couple split, Cetera began trying to prevent Weinstock from visiting his son. In the meantime, Cetera had Pablo baptized and sent him to Catholic schools.

In 1993, Cetera initiated divorce proceedings alleging that Weinstock had abandoned the couple's home. Cetera sought child support from Weinstock and exclusive custody of the couple's son.

She won the initial divorce trial, but Weinstock countersued, arguing that the decision to divorce had been mutual and that Cetera's claim of abandonment was spurious.

He sued Cetera for abrogating the couple's agreement to respect Pablo's Jewish roots and for sending him to a Catholic school instead of a secular one, as the couple had agreed.

The case dragged on for several years and eventually made it to the Supreme Court of Buenos Aires province.

In a 5-4 decision made four months ago, the court ruled in favor of Weinstock, saying that Cetera's move to baptize the child and send him to a Catholic school was unfair.

The decision--which made it into the news only recently--finally resolved the case and finalized the couple's divorce.

Given the slow pace of the Argentine justice system, the custody portion of the dispute was moot by the time the case was resolved, since Pablo is now 26. Today he works with his father and lives with his mother.

Judge Eduardo de Lazzari, who voted with the majority, said Cetera's actions constituted "an insult, a humiliation" for Weinstock.

Judge Federico Dominguez, who dissented, told JTA, "It was not religious; it was a judiciary issue. I have studied the discrimination laws, but the situation here was that Weinstock only complained for the baptism and Catholic school after he lost the divorce trial."

Rabbi Abraham Skorka, of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, said, "It is difficult to analyze the situation from a Jewish perspective, because the son of a non-Jewish mother is not considered Jewish."

Alejandro Bunge, a Catholic priest and professor of canonical law at the Catholic University in Buenos Aires, said it was more a question of respect than of religion.

"One of the parents can teach the son any faith, but they cannot hide the other," he said, referring to Cetera's decision to send Pablo to Catholic school and refrain from teaching him about his Jewish heritage.

Weinstock said he always knew that, as the son of an interfaith couple, Pablo would be heir to two religious traditions.

He knew that he "would be able to transmit to Pablo the concepts of Judaism, but that I had to respect his mother's origin too," Weinstock said. "I expected the same from her side."

Weinstock, 67, is the son of a Polish father, Enrique, and a Russian mother, Maria Esther. He was born in Argentina but, after his parents divorced, was sent to live in a Jewish asylum, now the Argentine Israelite Home for the Elderly, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Weinstock's memories of the asylum are almost universally unhappy: He remembers severe punishments, long nights and no emotional encouragement.

He lived there with his older brother, Moises David, until he ran away.

"Scraping a knife on a Keren Hayesod charity box, I managed to take a few coins. I jumped the brick fence, walked 30 blocks to the train station and took a train to Buenos Aires," Weinstock recalled in a recent interview.

He spent three days with only a small package of candy to eat until he made it to the city of San Martin, where Weinstock's cousin lived.

Weinstock says his own difficult childhood forged his commitment to his own children.

"The love for one's own children is probably the one thing that lasts forever,'' Weinstock said.

Weinstock has three other children from previous relationships. His last wife, Liliana, died four years ago.

Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Florencia Arbiser

Florencia Arbiser is JTA's correspondent in Buenos Aires. Prior to joining JTA, she worked for nine years at the Clar'n newspaper, the largest Spanish paper in the world. She also currently writes for Ciudad Abierta, the magazine of the Buenos Aires municipality's Department of Culture. In 1998 she won an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship.

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