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Around the Jewish World Welfare Program in Argentina Helps Keep Friendship Bonds Alive

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The friendship Sandra Werner and Monica Katz share is as resistant as iron.

For the past eight years, they have shared routines, holidays and their children’s education at the only Jewish school in the province of Cordoba.

Argentina’s deep economic crisis has affected them in different ways: Five months ago, Werner began to receive aid from the Jewish community in Cordoba, while Katz has become a volunteer at a Jewish welfare network.

Their stories highlight the economic stresses Argentina’s economic crisis has brought upon the country’s 200,000 Jews.

Their fortunes began to diverge two years ago, after the computer business Werner’s husband owned went bankrupt.

The two friends no longer shop together or go to the movies. Werner does not pass on her son’s clothes to Katz’s son.

Now it is Katz who sews clothes for Werner’s children, and who invites Werner’s family for dinner — up to three nights a week — because Werner doesn’t have enough food.

From her appearance, it’s difficult to tell Werner’s troubles.

Seated in a small office in the Israeli Union Center here, the 34-year-old woman with blow-dried blonde hair looked stylish, wearing golden rings and necklaces. Her clear blue eyes matched her fashionable blue dress.

It was difficult to guess that her family’s income went from 4,000 pesos to just 800 a month — current estimates are that approximately 1,250 pesos a month are necessary to support a family of four — when her husband lost his job.

Werner’s husband has spent the last two years depressed and under psychiatric treatment. Werner dismissed the servant and the gardener, left the private medical care system for a public one, took shopping, movies and restaurants out of the weekly schedule and even eliminated all food deliveries.

When her husband’s business went bankrupt, “it swallowed all we had. Now I see ourselves as of an impoverished middle class,” Werner said. “And I fear for the future.”

Meanwhile, Katz, who knew of her friend’s difficulties, began to help.

Last December, Katz became a volunteer for the Israeli Union Center at a welfare network that was developed during 2001 in 16 centers throughout Argentina.

The network was created to help the impoverished Argentine Jewish community by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Tzedaka Jewish social service organization and the AMIA, one of Argentina’s major Jewish institutions.

“For almost a month I kept thinking, how should I ask Sandra if she wouldn’t mind turning into the center for help?” Katz said of Werner. “I knew how economically comfortable they were years ago, but I was also aware that during the past months they have had almost no food.”

One afternoon, she called Werner.

“It was over the phone that I asked her if she wouldn’t mind becoming a recipient” of aid, Katz said. “I knew the value of the food vouchers the network could offer was the amount she used to spend on a carousel afternoon with her two children. But now she would use it to buy meat.”

Located in the heart of Argentina and 450 miles away from Buenos Aires, the province of Cordoba is home to the country’s second-largest Jewish population, with some 9,000 Jews out of a total provincial population of 3 million.

As part of the middle class, Jews in Cordoba were hard-hit.

At the province’s Jewish school, General San Martin, 60 percent of the children are on some sort of scholarship this year. Some children left school because their parents are emigrating.

Every year some 50 Jews used to leave Cordoba to move to Israel, but last year the number rose to 80.

This year, 160 Jews from Cordoba are expected to make aliyah, and another 160 are expected to leave Argentina for other countries.

It was last September that the JDC, Tzedaka and AMIA welfare network landed at the Israeli Union Center.

“We had to change the main focus of our work,” said Claudio Epelman, the center’s director. “Until 2001, our first goal as a Jewish institution was to sustain the school, the foundation for Jewish continuity. Now the social issue has become the priority in our agenda.”

A social assistance system coordinated by 12 women had been operating since 1982 in the 87-year-old institution, located in downtown Cordoba.

With the need for assistance growing, the 12 women became part of the new welfare network. With 150 volunteers, the networks helps about 200 Jewish families, a number that is increasing every week.

In addition to food boxes and food vouchers that can be used at local supermarkets, the network includes 120 doctors who give free care.

The center also has a medical warehouse to provide beneficiaries with medicine and drugs.

Ileana Wisnivetzky, 28, the coordinator of the welfare network and a teacher at the local Jewish school, told JTA that recipients mainly come from the middle class. As a result, the center implemented the food voucher system.

“We thought food handouts would be too difficult for many to accept,” Wisnivetzky said.

For many volunteers, the hardest part of the work is receiving people they already know from the local Jewish community who have been forced to seek assistance.

“I see people I know coming in, and I really don’t know if they will offer help or ask for food,” volunteer Monica Scheimberg said.

“Last week a 66-year-old man told me he was so ashamed to ask for a free doctor’s appointment,” she said. “He said what he wanted was to have a job to recover his dignity.”

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