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Argentine Jews View Future with Mixture of Fear, Uncertainty

Juan Imel and his son, Diego, were seated in a crowded cafe when a passer-by shouted at them.

“Hey, Imel,” the man said. “Haven’t you heard the latest news? Hebraica members can take out their money from the banks.”

The father and son, who belong to Hebraica, a Jewish social and cultural club, along with the man who called to them, exploded in laughter.

Both as a joke and as a serious topic, the inability to get money from the banks and the uncertain consequences of Argentina’s recent peso devaluation have dominated conversation here for the past three weeks.

“Even though the new measures affect all of Argentine society, Jews as a small middle class are very affected: Many receive fixed incomes in pesos that are being devalued, and their savings are caught in banks,” Bernardo Kliksberg told JTA. Kliksberg heads the Inter-American Initiative for Social Capital, Ethics and Development with the Inter-American Development Bank.

Diego Imel, 30, has a small company with four employees, which imports picture frames.

“I couldn’t afford imports any more. I have two containers stopped in China. Without any certainty on the peso and dollar value, I don’t even know the new prices for commodities,” he said.

Imel’s wife, Vanina, works at her father’s lingerie company, which also had to halt imports.

“Although my in-laws’ economic position is not at risk, their business can’t work out under these measures,” Diego Imel said.

Imel has begun to look into different business opportunities in Chile. Yet he’s ambivalent about leaving his homeland, and so far has found three different excuses to postpone the trip.

Asked whether he would be ready to leave Argentina, Imel hesitates.

“I grew up in Hebraica,” he says. “Soccer there gave me my closest friends. I wouldn’t live far from this extended family.”

Yet he knows he is still young enough to be able to start over again.

“The serious matter is that I do not see any perspectives on the Argentine horizon,” he said.

Only two months ago, Imel joined his friend Miguel Vaserman as a partner in a baby-clothing factory, but they are looking at the future with uncertainty and fear.

“No one has a peso to buy even a tiny bib,” he said.

Diego’s father Juan, 65, is very active in the local Jewish community, mainly in sports and social activities.

Formerly president of the Argentine Federation of Maccabean Community Centers, Juan Imel is on Hebraica’s Board of Directors.

“I am concerned about the deterioration in Jewish institutions. Many members are deserting, and we have financial problems,” he said. “Hebraica has almost 600 people with some sort of grant, and we’re always meeting to see how to decrease our costs.”

Already in a crisis for some time, the Jewish community was hard hit by the riots and political changes of the past month, Juan Imel said.

On Jan. 7 alone, he noted, “75 people came for social assistance at Hebraica. People know it is as a place mainly dedicated to distributing medicine, yet 35 people came to ask for psychological assistance.”

That night he asked Eleonor — his psychologist wife of 32 years — to donate her time for free to Jews in need.

Every night when he goes to sleep, Juan Imel worries about the engine parts factory he founded 35 years ago.

“I have five employees to pay. They are tense and uncertain about their work,” he says. “And I am, too.”

The Imels aren’t the only ones worried. Liliana Levy de Weisstaub, 51, shouldn’t be in Buenos Aires at all for an interview with JTA.

“I was supposed to go on vacation to Punta del Este,” in Uruguay, she said, “but how can we disconnect” in “this critical situation? I am in such permanent tension that I couldn’t stand being away.”

Levy’s only son, Demian Ezequiel, 26, left Buenos Aires in late December to teach snowboarding in Lake Tahoe.

Demian will return to take his final exam before becoming a lawyer, but Levy predicts her son will emigrate.

“Despite the pain his decision would give me as a mother, a Jewish mother, I think he has no future in this country,” she said.

As a gynecologist working privately and in hospitals, Levy initially refused to receive patients from health care funds, because they mean less money for the doctor.

When she realized there were very few patients who could afford a private doctor, however, she changed her mind.

“Some of the funds I work with pay me 9 pesos, with a delay of four months,” she explained. Those pesos are not equivalent to $9 anymore — they will probably translate into less than $6.

A financial lag of another scale is affecting AMIA, the central Jewish institution in Argentina that deals primarily with social assistance.

“With the impoverishment of the Jews in Argentina in 2001, fewer contributions were made and there was more demand” for money, Daniel Pomerantz, AMIA’s administrative director, told JTA. “As an institution financed locally and in pesos, devaluation will be a real blow to us.”

Last Janaury, 79 new families came to the second floor of AMIA to ask for aid subsidies. In December, 214 new families demanded help, Pomerantz said.

With almost no banks functioning, AMIA has little money to distribute.

“We have been living in uncertainty for the past weeks, with a situation almost of anarchy, as we do not know what will be the new economic measures,” AMIA’s treasurer, Bernardo Zugman, told JTA.

Salary payments to AMIA’s 230 employees are 20 days behind, and many employees have been working 12-hour days.

As a social service agency, AMIA doesn’t hound loan defaulters like a bank would, Pomerantz and Zugman said.

“We are having problems getting social contributions, because people are more worried about paying their electricity or medical bills” than giving money to AMIA, Pomerantz said.

According to the AMIA officials, the crisis has forced Jewish social service institutions to cooperate more closely.

Three months ago, AMIA and other institutions created an advisory committee for social policies.

The committee is working to create a data base of everyone the Jewish institutions have helped in order to know how many Jews who are receiving assistance.

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