Miami is gateway for Latin Jews

Argentine immigrant Alvaro Psevoznik and his son stand outside the Buenos Aires Bakery in Miami Beach. (Larry Luxner)

Argentine immigrant Alvaro Psevoznik and his son stand outside the Buenos Aires Bakery in Miami Beach. (Larry Luxner)

MIAMI (JTA) — At a suburban shopping mall on 169th Street and Collins Avenue, hungry lunch customers can choose among options ranging from Einstein Brothers Bagels and Parrilla San Telmo to the grilled chicken and sizzling fajita taco salad at Mexico Bravo Glatt Kosher. Further south along Collins Avenue, one can visit the Buenos Aires Bakery, a popular sidewalk café that sells bottled Israeli fruit juice — along with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and half a dozen brands of yerba mate, a traditional Argentine herbal tea. Indeed, the bazaar-like choices are testament to the burgeoning community of Latin American Jews who now call Miami home. One of the café’s regulars is Alvaro Psevoznik, a 31-year-old secular Jew from the northwestern Argentine province of Salta. Back home, Psevoznik owned a radio station and promoted local rock concerts. When his country’s economic crisis started cutting into ticket sales, however, he decided it was time to pack his bags for Miami. “I came here alone on a tourist visa with $4,000 and no job,” he told JTA. “For six months I was living off my savings, looking for work until I found two part-time jobs: one as a graphic designer, and one with a company that does shows.” Eventually, Psevoznik sent for his wife, Marcela, and their two small children. Marcela, formerly a teacher at the only Jewish school in Salta, got a visa with the help of the Latin American Migration Project, or LAMP, and now teaches at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. LAMP also helped the family obtain a $1,000 loan to pay INS and lawyers’ fees. Psevoznik is not alone in Miami: Just as New York was the U.S. gateway for Eastern European Jews escaping persecution 100 years ago, Miami today has become the gateway for thousands of Latin American Jews escaping economic instability. No one really knows just how many Latin American Jews live here. In 1994, a demographic study by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation revealed around 12,000 Jews of Hispanic origin in Miami-Dade County, or 5.6 percent of the area’s total Jewish population. Today, the number is substantially larger — perhaps double — with the biggest contingent coming from Argentina and smaller numbers from Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere. The more recent immigrants have little to do with the 8,000 Cuban Jews who arrived in the early 1960s, nor have they succeeded in mixing with the 135,000 or so English-speaking American Jews in the area. “I’m pleased at the pace with which our synagogues and Jewish agencies have reached out and begun to involve them,” said Jacob Solomon, the federation’s executive vice president. “But so far, the nature of that involvement has largely consisted of programs and activities designed specifically for them. In other words, they’re getting connected, but not integrated.” Furthermore, large financial discrepancies exist among the new immigrants: Some arrive with next to nothing, while others have saved millions of dollars in U.S. bank accounts. Many of the new arrivals rent small apartments in North Miami Beach, near the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center where LAMP has its headquarters. Hundreds of wealthier Jewish families from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela live in high-rise luxury condos in Sunny Isles and Aventura that they bought years ago as investments or second homes. A growing number of Latin Jews also have begun settling in Weston, a Fort Lauderdale suburb on the edge of the Everglades. Marina Blachman, LAMP’s coordinator, said her program began in June 2001 with a $240,000 grant from the Miami federation. Since then, LAMP has assisted more than 2,500 people, of which 80 percent are from Argentina, 5 percent from Venezuela, 3 percent from Uruguay, 2 percent from Colombia and 10 percent from other Latin American countries, principally Brazil, Peru and Cuba. “Most people came in the first year and a half, when they could get here without a visa,” she said. “They just bought a plane ticket and took one suitcase with them. A lot of them came to my office directly from the airport. But now it’s different.” Since February 2002, when U.S. immigration authorities removed Argentina from the visa waiver program, prospective Argentine travelers must visit the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires before they can come here. “To get a visa, you need to show you have a bank account and credit cards. You have to show them you’re not planning to stay in the United States,” said Blachman, 38, who moved here from Argentina eight years ago. Those who arrive on a three-month tourist visa must obtain a non-immigrant working visa if they wish to get a job — though Blachman said changing one’s legal status has become harder since post-9/11 immigration laws became stricter. “If they don’t get the” working visa “they stay illegally, but a lot of those people end up going back to Argentina because they can’t do anything here,” Blachman said. “We try to help them anyway — not with jobs, because that would be illegal — but if they need food, we won’t let them starve.” During LAMP’s first year of operation, whole families showed up, hoping to stay legally in the country. The end of Argentine visa waivers has streamlined the process somewhat, and now usually only the father comes to Miami to scout out a job and schools for the children; if he’s successful, he sends for his family. “We don’t ask how much money they have in the bank, unless they come here asking for financial assistance,” Blachman said. Juan Dircie, LAMP’s case manager, came from Buenos Aires two years ago, having worked at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and local offices of United Israel Appeal and Keren Hayesod. Like many professionals in the same boat, Dircie could have moved to Israel but decided to settle in South Florida because his wife — who has a doctorate in biology — was offered a research position at the University of Miami. “The ones who go to Israel have no other possibilities,” he said. “In Israel, they give you the airline ticket, the housing, everything. You come here, you’re on your own.” Like Psevoznik, most Argentine Jews aren’t religious, but they use the synagogues to socialize and make new contacts. At least eight Miami-area congregations now offer special Shabbat services in Spanish. Eventually, however, the newcomers must adapt if they want to succeed. “Anyone who thinks that Miami is full of Cubans and that you can speak only Spanish here is wrong,” Psevoznik warned. “You need to learn English.”

NEXT STORY