MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (JTA) — Marina, 36, is the granddaughter of concentration camp survivors who died when she was very young. Her parents worked in the textile industry but never saved much money because they had seven children to raise. Today, Marina hawks CDs on the streets of Montevideo and takes care of other people´s dogs, but is barely able to make ends meet. Ester, a 63-year-old widow, was used to the good life. In the 1950s, her father owned eight butcher shops and was among the Jewish elite of Montevideo. But these days times are tough, and the pension Ester receives from the Uruguayan government is not enough to live on. Nor is the help she gets from her two children, one of whom lives in Israel. Ester and Marina are but two examples of Jewish poor in Uruguay — a small, peaceful country that once had the most equitable distribution of income in South America. Not long ago, more than 40,000 Jews lived in this nation of 3.3 million people. But almost half of them have emigrated — most to Israel — within the last five years. Of the 23,000 Jews who remain in Uruguay, 95 percent reside in the capital, Montevideo; the other 5 percent are scattered in smaller cities such as Paysandu, Salto and Punta del Este. "The general population thinks the Jewish community is in excellent shape, and that poverty among the Jews doesn´t exist. Even senators, congressmen and journalists will tell you that," said Ed Kohn, executive vice president of B´nai B´rith Uruguay. "We had nine leading journalists here for lunch recently, and they were shocked when we told them about the problems we´re facing here." According to a new study commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, titled "Poverty, Vulnerability and Risk in the Uruguayan Jewish Community," 22 percent of the country´s adult Jewish population is "poor" and 40.5 percent is "vulnerable." The new poverty can be attributed to the economic meltdown in neighboring Argentina, which used to send 2 million tourists a year to Uruguay and, along with Brazil, accounted for much of the small country´s external trade. Tourism and trade have suffered in the wake of regional economic difficulties, and last year, prices jumped by nearly 26 percent, even as Uruguay´s GDP shrunk by an alarming 10.8 percent. "The economy is very bad, one of the worst crises in the last 100 years," said motorcycle factory owner Leonardo Rozenblum, 62. "It´s not true that we live better than other Uruguayans. The Jews have the same economic problems as anyone else." Five months ago, the community formed Fundacion Tzedaka Uruguay, a non-profit organization aimed at helping several thousand Jewish families who have suddenly found themselves in poverty. Rozenblum, the foundation´s president, said JDC has awarded the foundation $120,000 this year, and that local Jews have pledged to match the amount. "We´re giving people vouchers so they can buy food in supermarkets, and scholarships" equivalent to about $2,000 a year "so their kids can attend Jewish schools for free," the philanthropist explained. "We´re financing a community pharmacy to give medicines freely to people who don´t have money. We´re also opening a training center with social workers and psychologists to assist individual cases." Many of the problems Uruguayan Jews face are the same as those plaguing their brethren across the Rio de la Plata in Argentina. Yet because Uruguay is much smaller, the community´s plight is less known abroad, Rozenblum said. "The big difference between Uruguay and Argentina is that Argentina had more international marketing. It was in default," he said. "And they had the AMIA bombing, the Israeli Embassy attack," he said, referring to terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in 1994 and 1992, respectively. "The Jewish world´s attention was focused on Argentina, not us." That sentiment is echoed by Luis Grosskopf, president of B´nai B´rith Uruguay. For most of its 67-year existence, he told JTA, the group focused its philanthropic activities on needy non- Jews. "Ten years ago, no one would have believed that our situation would become so critical that we´d also have to help a high percentage of the Jewish community," said Grosskopf, whose organization today has 700 members in 16 units throughout Montevideo. "We had poverty, but it wasn´t so bad and we could handle it easily. Now it´s hard to help, because everyone´s standard of living has gone down." Along trash-strewn Calle Soriano, just a few blocks from the B´nai B´rith headquarters, pedestrians walk past the shuttered storefronts of Jewish-owned shops that have closed for lack of business. Even with the country´s GDP projected to rise by 1 percent to 2 percent this year, the outlook for Uruguay´s small-business sector is bleak. "At this moment, nobody´s selling or buying," Kohn said. "The buildings are empty and I´m not sure they´d be able to sell them if they have to in the near future." Telecom consultant Marcelo Cynovich, 38, serves as president of Hillel Uruguay. He´s also the volunteer cantor at the Yavne Community Center in suburban Pocitos, home to 54 percent of Montevideo´s Jewish families — and he knows nearly everyone in the close-knit community. "A lot of these families developed nicely with their little store or factory and ended up affording a house in Pocitos, the nicest residential neighborhood of Uruguay," Cynovich explained over dinner one recent Shabbat. "But in the past five years things have gotten worse, and these people weren´t telling us their problems. Many Jews still live in nice apartments but they´re eating their savings, and the last thing they have is their house." "Society as a whole is used to handling structural poverty, but not how to handle the new poor," he added. "It´s new for us, the way a middle-class family reacts when they face the fact that they´re actually poor. We are in the process of learning." At present, Uruguay has 20 synagogues, but only six hold weekly Shabbat services, and only Yavne functions every day. Miriem Mautner de Liberman, president of the parents´ board at Yavne´s school, said many of the 350 children who attend are on scholarships because their parents can´t afford the $2,000 annual tuition. "In the last two or three years, many of our young people have made aliyah," she noted. In addition, "some went to Spain and others to the States." In August 2001, community leaders launched Hillel Uruguay — the first of its kind in Latin America — to provide Jewish social and cultural life for the thousands of young Jews remaining in Uruguay. Cynovich, who was instrumental in getting Hillel off the ground here, says it´s one way of fighting an "explosion of intermarriage" in Uruguay. "Our goal is that everyone should make aliyah, but those who remain in the Diaspora have the responsibility to continue with their Jewish lives," he said. "It´s not a matter of numbers," he added. "As long as there are Jews in Uruguay, we have a Jewish future."The preceding is part of a 10-part series, "Latin America´s Jews." Funding for this series was made possible, in part, by The George Rohr Foundation, Inc.
SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING