Around the Jewish World Argentine Center for Needy Backs Up Words with Action

From the street, the thin, large house with high ceilings and wooden doors has none of the telltale signs of a Jewish building in Argentina.

There are no security fences, no police guards, no “parking is prohibited” signs — all of which became common after bombings rocked Jewish sites here in 1992 and 1994.

In fact, the house is not a Jewish building, though it serves the Jewish community.

On one recent Wednesday morning, almost 200 Jews were inside the building’s main room, sharing sandwiches, singing Jewish songs, dancing and reciting Yiddish poetry.

Some five years ago, psychologist Lea Kliksberg-Silberstein, the director of the Reflection Center decided to expand her program beyond psychology, sociology and philosophy courses and invite local Jews to join a self-help program called Center for Action.

Active in the Jewish community since she was a teen-ager, Kliksberg-Silberstein presented her plan to AMIA, an umbrella group for Argentine Jewry, five years ago.

AMIA accepted, and since then Jews have come to Center for Action every other Wednesday for some breakfast and self-esteem. AMIA does not fund the program, but does raise awareness of it in the Jewish community.

The center is not exclusively for Jews, but most of its clients are Jewish. In addition to the feeling of camaraderie and support, participants may receive a suit, a coat and some food.

The center tries to help with other needs as well — such as paying for a plumber, asking a doctor to charge an elderly patient lower fees or helping participants with their medical bills, even getting a pair of glasses for someone who can’t afford them.

As Argentina’s economic crisis has deepened, and once-prosperous people have seen their financial situation deteriorate, attendance at the center has grown.

“We are clearly receiving people from an impoverished middle class,” Kliksberg-Silberstein said.

The money for the programs comes from private donations from people involved in the Reflection Center, and from fees for the center’s programs.

Etty Pinhassof, who has been working at the Reflection Center for three years, is among the Center for Action’s 14 female volunteers.

Pinhassof, 59, was born in Israel but moved to Argentina after Israel’s 1948 War for Independence. She started volunteering in the Jewish community when she was 10.

“I’ve seen the misery and I am seeing it again,” she said. “I want to see now how the small Jewish community that we are all over the world shows its strength and recovers.”

In every meeting, activists greet guests by name, sit among them, drink coffee and chat.

Sabina Feinkind, a 76-year-old widow, sat at one of the small tables. Feinkind spent time in six concentration camps during World War II.

Now Feinkind, who arrived in Argentina after the war through the help of the Red Cross, lives alone in a rented apartment.

“The time I spend here” at the center “is what gives me courage to continue,” she said.

Kliksberg-Silberstein said she decided to set up the Center for Action because of Jewish teachings about charity.

“I always felt that tzedakah, understood as Jewish solidarity, is not a choice, it’s an obligation. This is what Judaism teaches,” she said. “All we teach at the Reflection Center courses is filled with reflection, but those thoughts have to go together with actions. The reflection itself is frustrating if it isn’t followed by action.”

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