Federation System Mobilizes to Help Argentine Jews in Need

The North American Jewish federation system is being asked to contribute more than $12 million over the next three years to help Argentinian Jews survive the country’s economic crisis.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is holding an emergency meeting Jan. 2 with top leaders from the federations’ umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, to discuss the rapidly changing situation in Argentina.

Argentina’s approximately 200,000 Jews have been hit hard by the country’s economic crisis, which erupted into street riots in which 25 people were killed earlier this month.

Traditionally middle class, a growing number of Argentine Jews — as many as 50,000 people, or a quarter of the community — has fallen below the poverty line in the past two years, according to estimates.

Argentina has a long history of anti-Semitism, but Jews apparently are not being singled out for attacks right now, according to a memo from the UJC.

Now, after riots forced the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua and a new and untested interim leader took his place, many Jews are seeking to emigrate to Israel. Others are looking at Europe, Latin America and North America.

In an ironic twist, some Argentine Jews whose grandparents fled Poland are now seeking to return there and reclaim citizenship.

The JDC initially requested $10 million for Argentina three months ago, but leaders say the recent economic collapse has forced them to increase their estimates.

In addition, the Jewish Agency for Israel — which is trying to process increased applications for aliyah — faces new needs in Argentina.

Together, the JDC and Jewish Agency receive approximately $300 million a year from the federation system.

Stephen Hoffman, the UJC’s president and CEO, said it is not yet clear how the federation system will respond to the call for help, and that it is currently working with the JDC, Jewish Agency and a few smaller agencies to get a better sense of the needs.

So far, he said, the different players have been providing somewhat conflicting reports about the scope of the Jewish community’s needs.

In particular, Hoffman said, the UJC is seeking information on the capacity of Argentine Jewish institutions to meet community needs, what programs would generate “a significant number of people to consider Israel for resettlement,” and “what kind of welfare assistance can be significant but also within our reach.”

“The only thing that’s clear is that there’s a need for special assistance, whether coming from special action by federations or approaches to foundations,” Hoffman said.

Several Jewish foundations have allocated money for Argentine Jews in the past few months, including $400,000 in job training programs sponsored by the New York Jewish federation.

The JDC has invested $1 million in emergency funds in the past few weeks, but says the money is running out.

The group is working to help “the very worst cases” of impoverished Jews and is providing cash assistance to help people pay rent and meet mortgage payments, said Michael Schneider, the JDC’s executive vice president.

The JDC is helping provide cash subsidies and food assistance to over 11,000 Argentine Jews, according to Alberto Senderey, the group’s director for community development in Europe and Latin America.

But far more Jews are in need, said Senderey, who is based in Paris but has visited Argentina monthly since September.

“We need to reach the rest of the people and give better help to the people we’re trying to serve,” he said. “There are new people just showing up now.”

In the past few weeks, the Jewish community has been distributing food, clothing and other supplies through synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

However, due to the recent rioting and fears of provoking resentment against Jews — who have been hit as hard as other Argentines by the economic crisis — Jewish groups are switching from direct distribution of goods to providing “supermarket vouchers” so people can get supplies directly from stores.

“We don’t want people to see us bringing food into Jewish buildings,” Senderey said, explaining that many groups are worried about being looted.

As it is summer in Argentina, children are not in school and parents looking for jobs have to worry about child care. The JDC and local Jewish community centers are working to make day camps available to more families.

In addition to food and medicine, many Jews need help to pay rent. However, distributing cash is difficult right now, Senderey said, because individuals are forbidden from withdrawing more than $250 a month from the bank. Organizations also face restrictions on cash withdrawals.

“The banks are not working, the country is in confusion, there’s a new temporary government and new economic rules nobody knows how to follow,” Senderey said. “We’re improvising every day, trying to help as many people as possible. Every day we reinvent again.”

Many Argentine Jewish organizations have not paid employees’ salaries in over two months, Senderey said.

In addition, they are having difficulty finding local volunteers to help with relief efforts because “everyone now has to stand hours in line in the bank to cash their own salary, so they have less time to volunteer.”

NEXT STORY