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Around the Jewish World Argentine Jews Tell of Misery, Ask Americans to Come to Aid

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If it can happen to Argentina, it can happen anywhere.

So say American Jewish activists and Argentine Jewish expatriates of the economic and spiritual crisis afflicting Argentine Jewry.

“Ten years ago, if you had asked me which Jewish community in the world most mirrors the American Jewish community, I would have said the Argentinian Jews,” said Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “If you had told me that today we’d be providing Argentinian Jews with relief aid and food packages, I never would have believed you.”

Yet Argentina today suffers from an economic collapse and hardship that some compare to Depression-era America. Coupled with the failure of two Jewish-owned banks, it has spawned legions of “new-poor” Jews and devastated a community of approximately 220,000 that once was among the Diaspora’s most vibrant.

Argentine Jewry’s traditional pool of roughly 4,000 welfare cases has grown to some 25,000. In all, about 10 percent of the community is said to be living beneath the poverty line, drawn at $12,000 a year for a family of four.

All this comes on top of twin terror attacks — against the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29 in 1992; and the main communal institution, AMIA, which in 1994 killed 86 people, including much of the community’s leadership.

No one has been prosecuted for either bombing, though a trial is said to be expected within months.

The community is shaken and, several years later, still feels vulnerable. Physical barriers and armed guards now protect virtually every Jewish institution.

“The trauma this community has suffered is tremendous,” Recant said Wednesday at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

Recant addressed the shul’s Latin America Committee. He was joined on the panel by Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski — who moved from Argentina to the United States 11 years ago — and Stewart Cahn, a New York lay leader of Argentine Jewish descent.

Much of the Argentine community traces its roots to East European immigrants who, plagued by pogroms and economic misery, set sail for the New World a century ago.

“They went to Argentina for a sense of security,” said Cahn, whose grandfather emigrated from Belarus, “and that sense of security is not there anymore.”

Over the decades, they established themselves as one of the nation’s most affluent communities. The older generation primarily was involved with mom-and-pop businesses — shops, pharmacies and furriers — while the younger generation embraced higher education and entered the professions.

Argentine Jews are a tight-knit group with a vast network of Jewish institutions, community centers, synagogues, day schools and Zionist camps.

But the network today is in disarray, and its congregations, sports clubs and other organizations are fast losing members.

The economic crisis is further exacerbated by a machismo that Jews have adopted from the greater Argentine society, panelists said.

“If you’re a man, you don’t want to admit that ‘I lost my job, I can’t afford it, can I have a scholarship for my kids?’ ” Recant said. “It’s just not the way it’s done in a macho culture. So families are just dropping out.”

As always, the elderly are hardest hit. The average pension is $150 per month, while the JDC estimates an individual needs $400 per month to survive.

With their welfare net torn apart, Jews are forced to continue working into their 70s to eke out an existence.

When Borodowski returned recently to the Buenos Aires seminary where he studied for the rabbinate, he said he found the elevator dormant and the building lit by a bare bulb, as the seminary couldn’t afford its electricity bills.

The activity rooms at his synagogue, where he used to play, have been transformed into areas where food, medicine and clothing are dispensed.

“The idea that in Argentina Jews would have to go to the synagogue for food,” Borodowski said, is “beyond dreams — it’s nightmares.”

Borodowski said his brother lost his entire $16,000 in savings, which he had held in one of the Jewish-owned banks. He now lives in a sparsely furnished apartment that “I don’t know how he pays for.”

His parents are in worse shape.

“I couldn’t have conceived that my mom and dad — two professionals — would ever have accepted money from their son in the United States. And if they’re accepting it, then that means they’re not telling me 10 percent of what’s really going on,” he said.

Once the panelists had stirred the sympathies of the 50 or so audience members with their personal tales and anecdotes, it was time to take questions. It wasn’t long before the more unseemly aspects of the Argentine community were also revealed — and some of the troubles, it turns out, may have been self-inflicted.

According to Argentine Jewish expatriates in the audience, the Jewish leadership in the country is entrenched, incompetent and corrupt.

They also claimed that the two Jewish-run banks were linked closely to a corrupt government and played fast and loose with the community’s money. When the banks failed, some $26 million in communal assets was lost overnight.

“My brother can get over losing his money, but he cannot get over the fact that Jews betrayed other Jews,” Borodowski said.

When a member of the audience asked in what way — in terms of activism, advocacy or logistics — American Jewry can contribute, Recant reassured the crowd that the necessary network is in place.

The solidarity displayed by visiting American Jews, “standing shoulder to shoulder” with the Argentinians in synagogue, would boost morale, he noted.

But what is most needed, he said, is money.

That doesn’t mean Argentine Jews are surging forward with their hands out, he said; they want to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

“They’re not asking for welfare; they’re asking for jobs,” Recant said.

He cited a few new businesses that have sprung up recently, such as a bakery, a direct-mail service and a Jewish-run tax service.

He also urged the audience to seek out U.S. corporations with branches in Buenos Aires and direct them to underemployed Jews.

In the end, the panelists were generally pessimistic about the prospects for an imminent recovery.

Recant predicted that emigration may increase to a mass exodus that would halve Argentina’s Jewish community within a decade.

How well Argentine Jewry survives the crisis, he said, will be as much a test for the Diaspora as for the community itself.

“What does ‘never again’ mean?” Recant asked, repeating a phrase Jews often use in reference to the Holocaust. “It’s a nice phrase, but it rings hollow if in their time of need, we can’t stand with the Jews of Argentina or anywhere else in the Diaspora.”

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