BUENOS AIRES (May. 6)
Only a friendly, Yiddish-speaking voice could coax 90-year-old Ernesto Jajam down from his roof.
Jajam climbed up four days ago, when the brackish waters of the Salado River swept through his neighborhood in Santa Fe, a city 300 miles north of Buenos Aires, following days of intense rain.
The floods forced the evacuation of 45,000 people, killed 23 and left 1,200 missing, according to army officials who are leading rescue efforts.
In all, 135,000 of the city’s 400,000 residents were affected in some way by the disaster.
Among those left homeless were 100 Jewish families and individuals from the city’s 900-member Jewish community, including Jajam. He stayed awake for three days watching the river swell until it covered his home’s windows and climbed within inches of his roof.
Those stranded were taken to temporary shelters, but Jajam refused to budge despite rescue workers’ entreaties. Fearing looters, he even disobeyed his rabbi’s pleas to leave.
Finally, exhausted and hungry after subsisting on a box of matzah he had managed to grab during his escape, Jajam agreed to be led away.
In the past few days the flood waters have ebbed a few inches a day and families have returned to their homes to inspect the damage.
Already suffering financially amid Argentina’s economic collapse, the flood victims face a new, physical devastation.
Before the flood, 150 families in Santa Fe were receiving economic aid from local Jewish welfare programs. Of them, 27 were left homeless this week.
Sixty other Jewish families also lost personal belongings and may need assistance.
“More help will be needed,” said Alberto Senderey, director of international community development for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The JDC is coordinating relief efforts with the nation’s Jewish umbrella organization, AMIA; the Tzedaka welfare foundation; and local officials, Senderey said.
The JDC already had sent about $3,500 for immediate rescue needs and sent a staffer to supervise assistance efforts on the ground.
Through AMIA, donations of mattresses, medicine, food and clothing are flowing to Jews in the disaster area.
AMIA has asked every Argentine Jewish institution to help with donations.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Daniel Goldman of the Bet El Jewish community in Buenos Aires, along with local church officials, led a fund-raiser to help flood victims.
“We have sent 17 trucks filled with food and medicine, and we expect to send 20 more,” he said.
Goldman and 10 volunteers from Bet El are headed to Santa Fe this week “just to be with the damaged people on Shabbat, to share their despair,” he said.
The Chabad house in Buenos Aires has asked the Chabad house nearest Santa Fe, in the city of Rosario, to help out as well, Lubavitch Rabbi Tzvi Grumblatt said.
Conditions in Santa Fe remain treacherous. Floods left half the city without electricity, and three of the five main roads are impassable.
Flood waters destroyed 14 schools and two hospitals, hundreds of private homes, gas stations and stores.
Now that the waters have subsided, volunteers ride boats through the city in search-and-recovery operations.
Two men named Jorge and Sebastian helped Ernesto Efron, a senior member of the local Sephardi synagogue, to rescue a Judaica library he’d spent a lifetime collecting and was forced to abandon when the floods hit.
The volunteers fished the books out of the water still filling his living room, said Gonzalo Abramovich, the JDC staffer in Santa Fe.
Efron now spends his days drying the books at the local Maccabi gymnasium.