Argentina: A Crisis-Stricken Community Struggles to Survive

This is a season of difficult choices for many Argentine Jews.

Once-wealthy parents suddenly must decide whether they can afford the luxury of private religious schooling for their children. Congregational rabbis have to figure out which of their synagogue programs to cut and how they’ll feed congregants who have been reduced from synagogue patrons to patrons of soup kitchens. Newly impoverished families must decide whether it is worthwhile trading their woes in Argentina for hardship in Israel, where 18 months of escalating violence has made life in the Jewish state difficult for Israelis and even harder for jobless, Spanish-speaking immigrants.

"There are many Jewish families [in Argentina] that simply don’t have enough money to buy food," said Dr. Hugo Ostrower, president of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), Argentina’s central Jewish community facility.

It takes a visit to Argentina to understand just how bad this crisis really is.

At the Lubavitch-run Bais Chabad center in a Jewish neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt says he has had to turn his outreach center and synagogue into a welfare center because of "the pressure of necessity." Independent of the usual Jewish organization superstructure, the Chabad center raises its own funds and provides help to roughly 1,500 people a month to buy food and medicine and pay their rent. Chabad runs 14 such centers around the country.

Recently, an ailing 70-year-old Jewish woman in a city hospital told a visiting rabbi she could not celebrate Passover because she had run out of money to buy the medication she needed. "If I don’t have my medication, how can I have Pesach?" she asked.

Without jobs or a way to pay their rent, some Jewish families have had to move into one of the many shantytowns growing in metropolitan Buenos Aires, said Lidia Wassertheil, a local Spanish-English interpreter. "People feel ashamed and don’t go to the community for help," she said.

Some of the signs of the national crisis in Argentina are immediately apparent — stores all over Buenos Aires are plastered with notices of "liquidacion," huge billboards in prime downtown locations are empty and anti-government political graffiti is everywhere — but the less-obvious aspects of the crisis are far more worrisome. Years of fiscal profligacy, the persistence of deep-rooted corruption in the public and private sectors and failed monetary policies have brought one of Latin America’s strongest economies to its knees.

Financially secure Argentines, with savings in the bank, were reduced to penury in December, when the government froze all bank accounts over $3,000 and forcibly converted dollar savings into devalued pesos. Those who have lost their jobs — unemployment is now at 22 percent –have little hope for economic stability in the virtual absence of a labor market. Without an income, even middle- and upper-class Argentines have no way of getting money. In the wealthy Buenos Aires neighborhood that is home to the country’s president, many houses post for sale signs, some of them tacked to the red brick wall that encircles the presidential compound, whose occupant has changed four times in as many months.

In the Jewish community, officials say demand is rising both for social services and spiritual services at a time when the community is running out of ways to provide them. Rabbi Ruben Saferstein, who runs the Sinagoga Dr. Max Nordau in the nation’s capital city, says his outreach-oriented synagogue has been wildly successful in attracting growing crowds of young Jews interested in their religion, but ever since the bottom fell out of the country’s economy, he has no money left for programming, little food to offer his congregants and trouble amassing the resources he needs to run his Shabbat services. Though he doesn’t mention it, Saferstein hasn’t been paid in eight months.

Saferstein’s experience is not atypical.

For Argentina’s once-affluent Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone. As one member of Argentina’s Jewish Community Emergency Committee put it, "The poor people dress like us, act like us and are educated people. But their fridge is empty, their electricity bill is not yet paid, their gas service probably already has been cut and they probably are not paying their mortgage or rent. This is the first time in history that the Argentine Jewish community needs the help of the Jewish international world."

In a sign of just how drastically fortunes have been reversed, World ORT’s Russian office, itself usually the recipient of charity, sent a $25,000 check in March to its needy counterpart in Argentina. ORT, the London-based worldwide Jewish educational and vocational training group, had already sent $185,000 to Argentine Jews in January.

In February, America’s United Jewish Communities (UJC) pledged $40 million this year in emergency aid to Argentine Jews. The Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJJDC), which are working with the UJC, have themselves earmarked millions of additional dollars for Argentine relief. And all over the world, hundreds of Jewish groups and synagogue congregations — and thousands of individual Jewish patrons — are sending money directly to friends, family and Jewish institutions in Argentina.

But amidst Argentina’s current economic turmoil, even the process of donating money is fraught with hazards, as a recent impassioned meeting between a visiting Jewish delegation from North America and the executive board of the AMIA made clear. First, there is the problem of transferring money. Because of the rapid devaluation of the peso — it has lost more than 65 percent of its value since December — any money that is converted from dollars into pesos immediately will begin hemorrhaging value. Moreover, because of severe government restrictions on bank withdrawals, any funds that are deposited into an Argentine bank effectively will be lost.

The most contentious issue, however, is deciding how the money should be spent. There is a multiplicity of local Jewish communal organizations operating in Argentina, and each has its own idea of where financial aid should go. But the differences among those groups seem small compared to the differences between Argentine organizations and the international Jewish charities committed to Argentine relief.

For example, of the $40 million UJC has earmarked for Argentine relief, less than 13 percent actually is to be spent in Argentina. Fully $35 million has been allocated to aid Argentine aliyah and absorption in Israel — under the auspices of the Jewish Agency — and $5 million is to be spent locally in Argentina under the aegis of the AJJDC. This has some Argentine Jewish leaders up in arms. They point out that while much has been made of Argentine aliyah, only a little more than 400 Jews a month are emigrating from Argentina to Israel. Meanwhile, a growing number of Argentine Jews are slipping into dire poverty, and local officials say that getting only a small fraction of the relief money — in the case of the UJC, one-eighth of the $40 million — is not nearly enough.

"We have a community and a middle class in Argentina that is falling to pieces," one Argentine official said privately. "The question is, do we have to keep the Jews in Argentina in poverty? Do we have to encourage Jews to make aliyah, despite the dangers there"?

In Israel, one Argentine emigrant, Nestor Edelstein, 43, noted, "They don’t talk about the bombings or the job market when encouraging you to come here."

The chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Dr. Israel Singer, addressed such concerns during a two-day visit to Argentina this spring to deliver $100,000 in food aid. "We haven’t come here to evacuate you, nor do we believe that anyone should be evacuated at this time," he told a group of Jews in Buenos Aires. "That doesn’t mean that people who want to make aliyah from the United States, from Europe and from Argentina shouldn’t be encouraged to do so."

Rabbi Mario Karpuj, an Argentine émigré to Atlanta, speculated that many Argentine Jews who can, will leave the country — just not for Israel. "Everyone expects the Jewish community to shrink drastically," he said.

The Jewish Agency estimates that the cost of an aliyah package for a family of four — which includes airline tickets, moving costs, housing and Hebrew ulpan — is roughly $28,000, or $7,000 per person. By contrast, Karpuj said, in Argentina, "with very little amounts of money you’re making a huge difference." He said that $12 was enough to supply a month’s worth of school lunches for a single student, and $6 covers a month’s worth of transportation to school. And as the value of the peso falls faster than Argentine prices, every dollar sent to Latin America is worth even more.

For his part, Singer says relief efforts should be focused on what the Argentine Jews want and need. Speaking to a group of Jewish Argentine journalists, he said, "This is not some gringo attempt to make Latin America part of the North American ethos. We know the mentality of Jews and non-Jews in Latin America, and it would be the biggest mistake to come as the rich uncle to teach you, to preach to you and to save you.

"We came to help people help themselves," Singer said. "That’s the Jewish way."