JERUSALEM (Jun. 28)
After years of concerned debate about the crisis situation in South American Jewry where intermarriage rates soar and Jewish identity languishes, the World Zionist Organization 18 months ago launched an extraordinary project seeking to stop the ebbing away of Jewish life on that continent.
Dubbed “The South America Program”, the project involved most importantly the allocation of massive funds for the strengthening of Jewish education in South American. The late WZO Chairman Pinhas Sapir was keenly aware–as he often said publicly–that the fate of the weaker diaspora communities depended more than anything else upon the education of the young generation.
The Department of Jewish Education in the Diaspora of the WZO, headed by Haim Finkelstein, was given $3.5 million, for use over three years in addition to its regular annual budget, with the specific purpose of investing the money in the survival of South American Jewry, Mid-way through the program, progress results are still sketchy and piecemeal. But department officials are confident that the money is being well spent and the purpose of the program is being achieved in a large measure.
SITUATION IN ARGENTINA
In Argentina, for example, despite the galloping inflation which puts Jewish schooling out of reach of many Jewish families, the figures of Jewish school registrations have remained constant this year, at around 21,000. This in itself is a most signal achievement, department officials explain, when the particularly adverse conditions of Argentina are taken into account.
“We saved Jewish education there literally at the last moment,” these officials say. When the school year opened, most parents found they simply could not afford to register their children at the Jewish schools, which receive little state aid and depend on community and world Jewish support.
The 21,000 figure seems perhaps small at first. But the officials explain that the widelyheld concept that Argentina has close to half a million Jews is far off the mark. In fact, they say, the community numbers less than 300,000 Jews, and with a low average birthrate, the percentage who are of school age is probably lower than the normally accepted statistical rate of 20 percent.
Apart from the low birth rate, the Argentinian Jewish community has been depleted by emigration to Venezuela, Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain and Israel. According to unofficial reports, tens of thousands of Argentine Jews have left in the last few years. Thus the 21,000 figure probably accounts for some two-thirds of the Jewish children in Argentina of school age, according to department experts.
OTHER COUNTRIES ASSESSED
In Chile and Uruguay, two other countries where the “South America Program” has been directed, the figures have risen by ten percent this past year. In both Argentina and Uruguay, the smaller and often far-flung Jewish communities have been in danger of attrition because they are inadequate to maintain, on their own, any form of Jewish schooling.
To remedy this, the WZO Education Department has set up boarding schools (with live-in facilities) in the major cities, to take in children from the provinces. The department also subsidizes the outlying areas imparting knowledge to the young Jews.
At present there are only two department schlichim in Argentina. But funds from the “program” will hopefully enable another five to be sent out there this year from Israel. The schlichim concentrate in the main on training local Jewish teachers, rather than on working in the classrooms themselves.
In Mexico, the situation is entirely different, There, the department has 30 schlichim working as teachers. Officials in Jerusalem explain that the Mexican community is so affluent that young men and women shun the teaching profession as not lucrative enough. In the hope of remedying this, the department has set up a special fund, to which both the WZO and the local communities are to contribute with the aim of increasing the income of Jewish teachers.
ASPECTS OF PROGRAM OUTLINED
Other aspects of the “South American Program” include: The brotherhood bridge, a scheme for South American children to spend the summer in the homes and schools of their Israeli contemporaries; teachers scholarships to enable outstanding local teachers to spend time at Israeli universities; and youth institutes which are study-and-leisure clubs set up in the major cities to serve young people who have missed out on a formal Jewish-education.
The department helps finance these institutes, and sends lecturers and educational materials to bolster their activities, Six of the institutes are already flourishing in Argentina say department officials, and six more are planned there. Two have been set up in Uruguay.