BUENOS AIRES (Jun. 12)
After years of depending on the kindness of others, donations from Argentine Jews to their own Jewish charities are increasing. Despite the fact that Argentina’s Jewish community lacks a comprehensive fund-raising strategy and tax deductions for charitable giving never surpass 5 percent, more and more Jews are contributing to local projects and institutions.
The Buenos Aires-based Tzedakah Foundation, created in 1991 with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to assist impoverished Argentine Jews, saw a 25 percent increase in donations last year. The largest expansion was in the group of donors who give less than $400 annually, which rose from 62 people in 2000 to 3,273 in 2004.
The total number of Argentine Jewish donors to Tzedakah last year was 3,595. Of the more than $1.4 million collected — which doesn’t include subsidies from JDC and the Claims Conference — 80 percent came from local donors and 8.4 percent from international donors. The rest were contributions of medicine.
“Donations are growing among Argentine Jews,” Jorge Schulman, the foundation’s executive director, told JTA.
Tzedakah was conceived of as a central collection agency, inspired by the American Jewish federation system. Unlike the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina, the community’s 111-year old central body — which is funded largely by burial contributions to the community’s four cemeteries — Tzedakah relies only on solicitations to fill its coffers.
Sponsoring an event is the best way to raise funds, Schulman said. This year, Tzedakah organized a summer golf tournament on the Uruguayan coast, two Israeli orchestra concerts and a gala dinner for donors.
One of its strongest draws is a young donors dinner that targets recent college graduates. Tzedakah also plans fund-raising campaigns that tie in with Passover and Rosh Hashanah.
Considering the obstacles to attracting substantial charitable donations in Argentina, Schulman cites the small number of Jewish families with large fortunes and stresses that there simply is no established culture of giving in the community.
But Schulman says the country’s recent financial crisis motivated Argentine Jews across the religious spectrum to help each other. A JDC survey conducted in 2004 and the first three months of 2005 shows that 53 percent of Jews in the Greater Buenos Aires area made a charitable donation to the Jewish community in the past year, including 38 percent who donated money. Others gave food, clothing, mattresses and other materials or performed volunteer work.
According to the poll, donor numbers from among the lower, middle and upper classes were almost equal.
Some 40,000 of Argentina’s 250,000 or so Jews currently live below the poverty level, which is defined as a monthly income of less than $300 for a family of four.
Seventy percent of Jewish parents who want to enroll their families in Jewish schools or community centers can’t afford to do so without outside assistance — a sign that there are few potential large donors in the community.
“Contributions from local donors are certainly increasing. But in comparison with the need, local funds do not allow us to complete our mission,” Chabad-Lubavitch’s Argentine director, Tzvi Grunblatt, told JTA.
According to Grunblatt, Chabad projects received $600,000 from local Jews in 2004, but the organization’s annual budget was $4 million.
“We’re educating people, and slowly the culture of charitable giving is widening,” he said. “We’re going through a mentality change.”
The drive to support the community with more locally donated funds can be seen in a new, large-scale construction project that got under way last year: A total of $3.4 million was raised from 50 large donors to create a new Jewish home for the elderly.
After learning that Jews make up 60 percent of the inhabitants of private, non-Jewish homes for the elderly in Buenos Aires, the Argentine Jewish businessman Jorge Fainzaig started devoting four hours daily to raising money for another Jewish facility.
Two of Buenos Aires’ three existing Jewish elderly homes are located on the city’s outskirts. One is filled to capacity and another, which needs extensive renovation, is located in an outlying area with a rising crime rate.
Envisioned as a self-sustaining entity with the capacity to house 295 elderly Jews and host 150 more for daily activities, the new senior living and community center will be located close to Buenos Aires neighborhoods with large Jewish populations and will be easily accessible by public transportation.
Convinced that the project is “truly needed and transparently planned,” Fainzaig, 59, started knocking on doors to raise the $10 million needed to open the home and cover operating costs for its first year.
“I’m surprised and moved. The magnitude of the project and the local funds donated make this a historic milestone,” he said.
According to Fainzaig, the average donor to the project is about 60 years old and may hope eventually to live in the new elderly home.
Seated in his office a few feet from Buenos Aires’ main downtown square, Fainzaig is proud of how well the campaign has gone.
“Rabbis with the strongest local connections to fund-raising opened their address books to offer their donors’ phone numbers to be part of the project,” he said.
To Fainzaig, the effort’s success isn’t due just to the slight improvement in Argentina’s economy in recent months, noting that fund-raising and giving to charity are key components of Jewish identity.
Fainzaig’s family moved his father, Isaac, a Polish-born tailor, into a non-Jewish home for the elderly in 1990. Sensing that it wasn’t the right environment for the family patriarch, after a few days they moved him back to his son’s house, where he lived out his days.
“Thanks to Jewish support, Jews now will have a better chance,” Fainzaig said.