Around the Jewish World As Economy Sinks, Uruguay’s Jews Struggle to Cope with New Poverty
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Around the Jewish World As Economy Sinks, Uruguay’s Jews Struggle to Cope with New Poverty

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“Until the water reaches our knees, we don’t take note of it,” Alejandro Kladniew said.

Kladniew, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Argentina director, who visited Uruguay last week, was not speaking about the rains that recently flooded his country.

Instead, he was referring to challenges facing both the Argentine and Uruguayan Jewish communities — the difficulty of recognizing and tending to the large segment of the communities that has been suddenly in a struggling economy.

Historically, each of Uruguay’s four different Jewish communities — the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, German and Hungarian — has each been able to assist its own poor, who until recent years have made up 3 percent to 5 percent of the Jewish population.

But several factors in recent years combined to impoverish many of the country’s 15,000 Jews: The spread of globalization, which harmed many middle-class South American businessmen; a recession that began here in 1999 and continues until today; and, most notably, the 2002 economic crash.

True to form, the most dramatic blow to Uruguay’s economy followed the start of Argentina’s social and economic crisis by about six months. Uruguay depends on its large neighbor for the majority of its business, and what happens to Argentina’s economy usually happens to Uruguay’s.

The tremendous growth of indigence in the Jewish community during the last decade has created a class of people known as the “new poor,” and demanded a reassessment of the community’s traditional systems of aid, which were overwhelmed and inadequate.

In October 2001, the presidents of Montevideo’s four communities solicited the aid of the JDC in merging and centralizing their financial resources.

During the last year, the JDC and the communities took one of their first steps by establishing the Tzedakah Foundation Uruguay.

The foundation’s first project, the Integral Center for Attention and Orientation, or CIAO, opened its doors this month to needy community members who aren’t already on the lists of other social service agencies.

Jorge Stainfeld, the foundation’s vice president, said the center was created specifically to serve those made poor by Uruguay’s recent economic struggles.

The Israelite Community of Uruguay, also known as the Ashkenazi Kehilah, has and continues to be the main source of social service aid within the traditional system.

The executive director of the Kehilah, Abel Bronstein, addressed the importance of CIAO’s work in helping the new poor.

“There are families that don’t want to come to the Kehilah for help because of its historical reputation” for being the place where the most severely poor go for aid.

The embarrassment over their suddenly needy state is the greatest challenge in identifying and assisting the growing new poor. There is a rising “dropout rate” in community institutions attributable to the high cost of membership.

Jewish community centers have lost members, schools have lost students and many couples slowly have left the social scene altogether as they feel that their homes aren’t nice enough to invite guests nor their salaries good enough to go out with friends.

Aware of the sensitivities, CIAO arranges appointments in such a way that its clients never see one another, and conducts all proceedings with the utmost confidentiality.

“You have to give dignity to these people,” Stainfeld says. “They have to feel comfortable.”

According to Stainfeld, the center already has received some 60 or 70 people. Its opening, services and contact information have been widely advertised in the community.

Posters and pamphlets are plastered all over youth movements and synagogues, and at each of the 15 Uruguayan Jewish organizations for which the center serves as an umbrella.

Institutions represented include Chabad-Lubavitch Uruguay, B’nai B’rith Uruguay, Hillel Uruguay, all four Jewish day schools and the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, German and Hungarian segments of the community.

The JDC has pledged to provide the Tzedakah Foundation with $120,000 per year to cover basic welfare needs, in addition to aid in training and technical and professional support.

“The Uruguayan Jewish community is one of the great communities that is temporarily in crisis and needs help,” said Steven Schwager, the JDC’s executive vice president. “The American Jewish community will do what is necessary to help the Uruguayan Jewish community recover and resume its rich, structured Jewish life. It is our moral obligation as brethren.”

Kladniew emphasized that the Tzedakah Foundation is intended to be an independent, centralizing community undertaking.

“It’s important to note that the Joint is just one more part,” he told JTA.

There are community members who could afford to make large contributions, but philanthropy is not yet a social value in Latin America the way it is in the English-speaking world, Kladniew explained.

“We are trying to create this culture of giving here and recreate the value of tzedakah,” or charity, “not only for Israel but for local needs as well,” he said.

“Sometimes what happens is that the Anglo-Saxon culture is more forward thinking,” Kladniew said. “We are trying to change our mentality and act sooner, before the water reaches our knees.”

Any inquiries regarding the work of the Tzedakah Foundation may be directed to

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