Around the Jewish World in Argentine Provinces, Downturn Leads to Exodus of Jewish Leaders

Elena Roitman is trying to fill some empty Jewish posts in her community in Santa Fe.

The Jewish school’s Hebrew director made aliyah in recent months, as did another local Jewish leader. So far, almost 80 Jewish families — or nearly 10 percent of the community — have left Santa Fe for Israel in the last 18 months.

The situation in Santa Fe, located about 300 miles north of the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, epitomizes the plight smaller Argentine Jewish communities face as the country struggles with its second consecutive year of economic turmoil.

Outside of the capital, the suffering “is more palpable,” said Ana Weinstein, director of the Argentine federation of Jewish communities, or Va’ad Hakehilot. The group is a division of the AMIA, Argentina’s central Jewish institution.

Va’ad Hakehilot gives support and assistance to communities in the provinces by running training programs for leaders, analyzing what each community needs and helping communities find economic support.

About 15 percent of Argentina’s roughly 200,000 Jews live in the provinces, Weinstein says. But nearly 29 percent of the families that made aliyah in 2002 were from smaller towns and rural areas, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.

The result is damage to the institutions that are the fabric of Jewish life in those areas: synagogues, day schools and clubs. In Santa Fe, those who left were among the most active members of the community.

“There are so many people from our Jewish community in the U.S.,” said Raquel Gura, 65.

“Our former temple chazan is now a chazan in Malibu,” she said of her synagogue’s cantor.

“Our present chazan is leaving to do his work in New York. We even joke that in our community we make such good chazans that we could advertise, ‘If you want to live in the U.S., be a chazan in Santa Fe.’ “

Argentina’s economic troubles are only part of the reason for the exodus. Students frequently also leave their small towns to study in Buenos Aires or abroad. Many of them never return.

“Under these conditions, the difficulty in maintaining the continuity of Jewish life is huge,” Weinstein said.

Taken together, the two factors leave many communities without the proper professionals to lead them.

Furthermore, the economic crisis has made it impossible to afford rabbis: Until only a few months ago, many community centers only had a rabbi for special celebrations.

This situation now is improving, thanks to support from local and foreign donors.

In addition, younger rabbis who recently have graduated are being hired because their salaries are lower than those of more experienced counterparts.

Only four months ago, after nine years without a rabbi, Daniel Dolinsky, 34, was hired as Santa Fe’s rabbi and school director.

“When leaders leave, a hole has to be covered to continue working with hundreds of families,” said Dolinsky, who graduated from a rabbinical seminary last year.

There are 300 children at Santa Fe’s Jewish day school. Unlike other cities, there are three synagogues, all of which have remained open. The largest, which has about 250 members, is part of the Jewish community center. Elsewhere in town, a Sephardi shul draws about 30 people for services and an Orthodox one gets about 15.

Dolinsky says 50 families have returned to the Jewish community to seek help because of economic problems.

“We’re still trying to bring closer 100 more families in the same situation,” Dolinsky said.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provides much of the social-welfare assistance in the provinces, is training volunteers and developing specific programs in some communities.

In the northern city of Resistencia, which has about 200 Jewish families, the JDC determined after study that the city needed a community leader. The group found and hired someone, and then got local Jews to offer financial assistance to the community.

Another study of demographics and needs is under way in the northwest city of Tucuman.

The Va’ad Hakehilot — along with the Argentine Keren Hayesod and the Jewish community of Boston — sponsored a program known as Eitan, which sends professionals to 17 provincial communities in Argentina.

Community members themselves also are taking action.

For her part, Roitman says she is learning more in order to fill the gaps left by those who have emigrated.

“I am receiving training to improve my knowledge of Judaism in order to help in the community,” she said.

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