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How to help Argentine Jews?

NEW YORK, Jan. 8 (JTA) — North American Jewry´s federation system has assembled a task force to decide how to respond to the unhinging of Argentina and its Jewish community. Faced with an emergency request for more than $4 million from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system, set up the task force last week to decipher the scope of the problem and determine how to respond. The task force, headed by Karen Shapira, chair of the UJC´s Israel and Overseas Pillar, comes as Argentina devalued its peso, sending the country into further economic uncertainty. Argentina´s economic and political collapse presents a first for the organized American Jewish world: Unlike rescuing Soviet refuseniks or airlifting Ethiopians to Israel, this operation addresses the unique challenges of saving a hearty, modern, Western community. The challenge comes as UJC´s principal overseas partners — the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel — which are primarily concerned with community support and helping Jews move to Israel, respectively, have been providing relief on the ground. "This is an unprecedented historical event for the Jewish community," said Will Recant, JDC´s assistant executive vice president for Latin America. Unlike so many modern Jewish relief efforts, this isn´t a poor country emerging from communism, Recant said. This time, Jewish agencies are challenged with a new set of questions. He offered the case of a middle-class Jewish Argentine who has lost his job and can no longer make mortgage. "What do you do? Do you let them lose their house? Do you give them a subsidy so they can make this month´s mortgage payment? Do you give them a job so they can meet their mortgage payments in the future? Or do you tell them to sell their apartment and get out of there, you can´t afford to live like that anymore?" These are the questions facing the organized Jewish community as it tries to accommodate the swell of Argentines begging for aliyah, or immigration to Israel — and others who want their old lives back. And it´s not just the 26,000 Jews living below the poverty line in Argentina that are requiring attention. With day schools and community centers closing and consolidating, the entire infrastructure of the 200,000-strong community has been affected,. That´s not to mention the 6,000 to 7,000 Jews who are currently in the process of preparing for aliyah; applications increased threefold since the rioting broke out a week and a half ago, according to Jewish Agency officials. Foreseeing the drop in Argentina, the JDC stepped up its work there four years ago and has been providing food and medicine in 37 Jewish centers across the country. JDC officials say because of the emergency efforts in recent months, the resources budgeted for Argentina for this year will last approximately six more weeks. At that time they hope the UJC will have come through with a strategy and funding — to the tune of $4.7 million. They are hoping the Argentine Jewish community, which has retained some of its wealth, can raise an additional $4 million. But this week´s devaluation of the peso may prevent Argentine Jewry from coming up with that much. The JDC´s local partner institutions will now be losing 30 to 40 percent of the value of their money, Recant said Monday. Stephen Hoffman, UJC´s president, predicted that the peso´s devaluation will likely mean the JDC´s initial request to the UJC will change. But he also said that judging from reaction during a conference call for federation leadership last week, interest is "relatively high." For its part, the Jewish Agency has yet to inform the UJC how much money it needs. Although some individual federations have already made special allocations — or are considering doing so, many are trying to educate their communities and wait for more information from UJC. According to Steven Rakitt, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, "We are keeping our board and our staff informed of all new developments." But Rakitt is waiting for a sense of the magnitude of the problem before making any fund-raising commitments. "Is it a $10 million problem, a $50 million problem or a $100 million problem?" he asked. In the meantime, Recant said he is "hopeful and optimistic" that the federation system will come through. He said JDC expects a response in early February. The Jewish Agency, meanwhile, says funds devoted to helping transport and absorb immigrants to Israel from Argentina will pay off. Middle-class Argentines that are moving to Israel are often well-trained in computers or business and are people who "can contribute much to Israeli society," said Yehuda Weinraub, a Jewish Agency spokesman. Israel is offering Argentine Jews an additional $16,000 above normal absorption funds to make aliyah.