BUENOS AIRES (Jan. 16)
When the weather gets hot and sticky in Argentina, locals take refuge in malls, gas station, shops or just about any place with air conditioning.
But on Tuesday, which was one of the hottest days of the year at a humid 95 degrees, a group of U.S. Jewish officials pressed ahead with their mission to get a firsthand glimpse of Jewish social service projects.
The small delegation visited summer camps, welfare and job centers, and met with social workers and beneficiaries of programs sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The group included Steven Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president, and federation representatives from Cleveland and New Jersey.
The group came to see how a $15.5 million budget, nearly double last year’s amount, will be invested to help Argentina’s 200,000-strong Jewish community through the country’s economic crisis.
The money mainly will go for education and welfare, but some will be spent on housing, mergers of Jewish institutions and community-wide holiday celebrations.
A computer program developed by JDC helps track each of the 34,000 Argentine Jews who have received help from the American Jewish community.
That should ensure that “there is no duplication of services,” said Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the federation in Metro West, N.J., and a member of the delegation.
Kleinman was struck by the pride of the mainly middle-class community, including four social workers the group met.
“In addition to the work they do, they support their own extended families,” where relatives have lost jobs, Kleinman said.
American Jews know that, but for a few twists of fate, they could be in the same predicament. Most Argentine Jews are descended from European immigrants; often, one member of a family went to the United States, one to South America.
“Some boats turned left, some boats turned right,” Schwager said.
Arieh Abir, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Latin America director, announced that the agency will continue providing special benefits for Argentine Jews who make aliyah in 2003.
Some 6,500 Argentine Jews moved to Israel last year. The numbers are expected to hold steady in 2003, said Abir, who made aliyah from Argentina 40 years ago.
The immigrants currently receive some $10,000 per family to ease their absorption, along with an extra budget for housing. At the end of February, additional aid — such as help with school fees and for finding jobs — will be discussed, Abir said.
One JDC focus this year will be consolidating Argentine Jewish institutions and strengthening surviving ones, Schwager said.
Education is also a concern.
After December 2001, when the Argentine economy collapsed, Jewish education was taken care of by a coalition that included the AMIA Jewish Community Center, JDC and the Jewish Agency. Keren Hayesod, the World Jewish Congress and Edgar Bronfman give their support through these institutions.
“We need to think centralizing,” Batia Nemirovsky, general director of AMIA’s Central Council of Jewish Education in Argentina, told JTA.
According to Nemirovsky, three Jewish schools closed during 2002, and overall the Jewish school system lost 8 percent of enrollment. Still, almost 17,000 kids remain in Argentine Jewish schools.
Of those, “almost 50 percent have some kind of scholarship,” Nemirovsky said.
The coalition is helping schools to stay open, she noted, but “the funds aren’t endless.”
Schwager said that the groups were “continuing to put band-aids on the problems,” but he noted, “we need to find the right balance between helping and making independent institutions.”
Some 4,000 students attend ORT high schools in Argentina, according to Baruj Zaidenknop, general director of ORT in Argentina.
Only 30 percent of the children pay the full monthly fee of about $115, he said; the rest receive some kind of scholarship.
Some 200 ORT students get lunch through a JDC program called Meitiv, and 20 get some sort of help through an American program called Guesher, which offers family-to-family support.
The schools and other institutions were poorly run before the crisis, Zaidenknop says.
“The crisis just made it worse. But the communal institutions in general were used to living off subsidies,” he said. “And it’s not just a matter of merging two weak schools together. Two poor people do not make a rich one.”
Schools don’t need to be lucrative, but they do need to sustain themselves, Zaidenknop said.
Toward that end, the Jewish educational coalition is trying to think beyond the current crisis and plan for the community’s long-term viability.
One step is the creation of two new kindergartens in areas where Jews have moved in recent years. That will allow the youngest Jews to have Jewish education.
“This is a way to keep people in the Jewish family,” Schwager said.