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The Jews of Argentina Not Strangers in the Land

It would be hard to tell from a casual walk on the main streets of this cosmopolitan capital city which, with its lively cultural and social life, never seems to sleep — that Argentina is in the grip of a severe economic crisis. The country has a $53 billion foreign debt and crippling inflation, has undergone over 600 strikes and work stoppages in the past year, and has an unemployment rate of five percent and rising.

"It’s difficult for people to understand that we are no longer a rich country," filmmaker Aida Bortnik told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "Middle-class Argentines grew up thinking about ourselves as a country of riches without end."

Argentina is still rich in natural resources — it exports beef and wheat — and in natural wonders such as the magnificent Iguazu Falls toured by a delegation of North American Jewish journalists and communal leaders on a recent visit to the country.

But the economy is in a shambles. "The junta destroyed our economy and industry," said Bortnik. The economy has been described as speculative rather than productive, and there are reportedly less than one-half million blue-collar workers out of a population of 28 million.

Over the past ten years, many middle and upper-class people have been catapulted into poverty. People speak wryly of "the university of the taxi" — of individuals with advanced degrees working as cab drivers, if they are lucky. Many Argentine scientists have emigrated because of what they regard as the country’s low technological level.

ECONOMIC CRISIS AFFECTS JEWS

Although some people believe that things have been improving — in 1986, investment rose by 18.5 percent after six years of decline, and the average income was up more than four percent after a drop of six percent in 1985 — there is general agreement that the economic crisis has adversely affected Jews, who lack a strong economic base.

Argentine Jews, said Reuven Sadan, the shaliach (emissary) of Kibbutz Artzi (Mapam) to Latin America, have tended to work at "luftmentsch" (unsolid, rootless) activities, such as wheeling-and-dealing. Many were involved with the textile industry, which was wiped out, and with construction, which is in crisis.

Many Jews are merchants and in the "free professions," such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and psychiatrists. This last group finds their services as popular and as in demand as in the United States. The Secretary of Culture, noted writer Marcos Aguinas (his sister, Shoshana Aguinas, directs the San Martin Jewish High School in Cordoba) practices psychoanalysis from 8 a.m. to 12 noon and then goes to his government office to work from 12 to 8 p.m. There are also many Jews among the unemployed, and the AMIA — the Kehilla of Buenos Aires Ashkenazic Jewry — finds itself giving out more welfare than ever before. Many families cannot afford to send their children to Jewish schools. While some scholarship money is available, many parents are too proud to ask for it.

Enrollment in the 57 Jewish day schools in Buenos Aires and the half-dozen in the provinces is increasing. The trend began under the junta, when parents wanted their children to be in a "protected environment" all day. It has continued because it is regarded as one of the few means to fight against assimilation, according to Ricardo Kleinman, secretary of the DAIA, the representative body of Jewry, in Cordoba.

In addition, private schools are considered educationally superior to public schools, where parents also fear a drug problem is beginning. There is a vast private school network in Argentina, and the government is required by law to support parochial schools. It provides most of the Jewish schools’ budget for general studies, including teachers’ salaries, which rose by 50 percent in the Jewish schools after last year’s negotiations with the 2,500-member Histadrut Hamorim (teachers’ union).

There are no official figures as to precisely how many Jewish students attend the day schools. According to Joshua Flidel, director of ORT in Latin America, there are 12-14,000 children in the Jewish primary schools (grades one through seven) and 3,000 in the secondary institutions (grades eight to 12) in Buenos Aires.

Nor are there any official statistics on the percentage of Jewish youth who attend these schools. Various estimates given to the North American delegation ranged from 25 to 30 percent. Some 80 percent of the primary school graduates reportedly do not continue on to Jewish secondary schools.

VARIED NATURE OF COURSES

Most of the day schools in Buenos Aires and in the provinces — one each in Cordoba, Rosario, Sante Fe, Bahia Blanco, Mendoza and Tucuman — are secular in orientation, with Jewish holidays taught and celebrated as part of Jewish culture. There is a high level of Hebrew and in some, it is the language of instruction in Jewish studies. Yiddish, if taught at all, is given several hours a week.

The Hebraica Community Center’s five-year-old Amos High school, part of the trend of these centers to establish secondary schools, focuses on the arts — "like a Jewish ‘Fame,’ " said Hebraica executive director Alberto Senderey.

Amos accepts 70 out of 150 applicants after a preparatory course. Since 30 percent never attended Jewish primary schools, it has different levels of Hebrew classes and introductory courses on Jewish life.

The 18-year-old Rambam High school in the old Jewish neighborhood of Once (now being settled by Korean immigrants) requires of its 420 students a high level of Hebrew, which is the language of instruction for the 52 hours a week of Jewish studies. This includes two hours on religion, two on Israel and four of Yiddish, according to its director, Braja Kunin de Levy.

This year, Rambam established the Janusz Korczak post-secondary Institute for Teacher Training, 40 students, including three from the provinces and many on AMIA Kehilla scholarships enrolled. Not only is there no shortage of Jewish teachers, but Argentina "exports" them to other South American communities.

With over half the 1,530 ORT secondary school students coming from non-Jewish primary schools, ORT puts a great deal of effort into its Jewish education program, which expanded this year to eight hours a week and includes Hebrew, Bible and Jewish history. There is a small synagogue in the old building in the Jatai district and one planned for its new structure in the upwardly-mobile Belgrano neighborhood.

In addition to Jewish studies, the long school day (7 or 8 a.m. to 5 or 7 p.m.) comprises classes in technical and scientific subjects, such as computers (communications are on the future agenda), liberal arts, and languages. Flidel believes the ORT school, which others called the most important technical school in Argentina, gives its students more chances on the labor market.

An estimated 70 percent of Jewish high school graduates of both the Jewish and the public schools go on to university, the rest into the labor market. The boys are required to do a year of post-high school military service.

In all the Jewish high schools except ORT — which is 70 percent male in enrollment — female students predominate. Senderey indicated that the main reason is that parents seek to have their sons begin to prepare in high school for a future profession and "Judaism doesn’t lead to a career."

Another impact of the economic scene on Jewish education is that many of the schools, including ORT and Rambam, have introduced classes in English. Many of the students told reporters they hoped to go to the U.S.

Senderey believes a great part of the Argentine Jewish population will emigrate because "there is no economic future for them in South America." He himself has recently accepted the position of head of JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee)/Israel.

(Tomorrow: Part Five)

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