BUENOS AIRES (Jan. 30)
It’s summertime in south-of-the-equator Argentina, but for Jewish schools here, the living ain’t easy.
The financial crisis that sent Argentina into a tailspin at the end of last year has had a devastating effect on the nation’s Jewish educational network.
Education experts predict there will be a “desertion rate” of 25 to 30 percent from Jewish schools during the coming year, which is causing the experts to predict a dire future for what was once considered one of the best Jewish school networks in the world.
The network has attracted a consistently high percentage of Jewish children from the community, higher than most communities in the Diaspora.
Of a population of some 36,000 Jewish children of school age in Argentina, about 17,000 attended a Jewish school last year.
The network has produced its own textbooks and trained teachers and principals who went on to work elsewhere in Latin America.
In greater Buenos Aires alone, there are 82 Jewish schools — 37 kindergartens, 13 primary schools and 32 high schools.
But those totals could dwindle when the new school year begins in March.
Faced with financial hardship, only 50 percent of the families that have expressed a wish to continue with Argentina’s Jewish school system have paid registration fees.
According to Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Latin American Jewish Congress’ Human Development Committee, any desertions from the school network would be a loss for the Jewish world as a whole.
“It increases the spiritual and educational poverty of Jewish family life and it increases assimilation risks. It is urgent to save the soul of every Jewish child,” he said.
Daniel Pomerantz, the administrative director of AMIA, the main Jewish institution in Buenos Aires, agrees that a major threat looms.
“With the crisis in the educational system, the Jewish community is in danger. But not because of anti-Semitism. The problem is social and economic,” he told JTA.
Kliksberg told JTA that most of the desertions are “strictly due to reasons of poverty.”
Even if schools reduce monthly fees, “families still have to be able to afford transportation, food and school supplies. And many cannot do it any longer,” he said.
Batia Nemirovsky, director of the Central Council for Jewish Education in Argentina, told JTA that the country’s Jewish educational institutions traditionally have been supported by monthly fees of about $150 per family.
Nemirovsky added that many Jewish families used to pay more than the standard fee to help those that needed scholarships.
“But with the impoverishment process we are now going through, very few families can pay the standard fee,” Nemirovsky said. At the same time, the “demand for scholarships is increasing. The slowness in paying is increasing, too.”
As families unable to afford the fees send their children to public school, Nemirovsky spoke of the need to guarantee children a Jewish education.
“We cannot let the children drop out of the system,” she said.
In an effort to deal with the crisis, the Central Council is heading up a committee trying to find ways to reduce educational costs and free up money for scholarships.
The committee plans to organize a buying club to get better prices for school supplies, catering, security, insurance and transportation.
Since 1995, two new Jewish schools have opened in Argentina — but 10 have closed.
Soon there may be an 11th: the Doctor Herzl Institute.
Located in a working class neighborhood of Buenos Aires known as Once, the school has taught students for approximately 100 years. It is the oldest Jewish school in the country.
After years with a student body of some 800, the institute closed its high school in 2000. Last year, the institute had only 250 students — 50 percent of whom were on scholarship.
Officials say they are unsure whether they will open the school’s doors when classes begin in March.
Rosana Szteinhauz, director of the Jewish department of the institute’s primary school, told JTA that parents, teachers and former students are trying to find a way to keep the school afloat.
But finances may prevail over good intentions: The institute’s debt is estimated at over $500,000 dollars. Making matters worse, only 34 families have paid next term’s registration fees.