Groups Host Weekend in Argentina for Needy, Unaffiliated Jewish Families

Mothers and fathers are seated in a circle, enjoying a sing-along, their enthusiastic harmonies carrying across the grassy fields of the vast park dotted with barbecue grills, tiny cabins and soccer fields. Nearby, their children are happily building towers out of plastic blocks. A few minutes later, the 19 families gather at long tables for a picnic lunch, everyone laughing, talking and relaxing on a carefree afternoon.

This was the leisurely Sunday schedule at an all-expenses-paid vacation weekend in late July, a joint initiative of Argentina’s Jewish institutions with a unique objective: to give impoverished Jewish families at risk of assimilation a meaningful Jewish experience.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, BAMA The Jewish Educator’s House, the Tzedakah Foundation, the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, and the youth group Betar Argentina organized the getaway for families that currently receive assistance from the Jewish social services system but are unaffiliated with any Argentine Jewish institution.

Most of the families involved belong to the former middle class, which was impoverished after the 2001 Argentine economic collapse. Only a few of the parents have any Jewish education; most of their children attend public schools. Few observe any Jewish holidays.

Despite the South American nation’s economic rebound, 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.

The families, talkative and laughing, traveled by bus to Las Clavelinas, a vacation complex in Escobar, 27 miles north of Buenos Aires. For most parents in the group, a vacation weekend outside Buenos Aires — free of cooking, cleaning, scraping together money to buy groceries and wondering how to pay bills — was a long-forgotten experience.

"I almost forgot what leisure meant. I ate sitting down. I cannot recall if it ever happened to me before," Dora Teitelbaum, 40, a kindergarten teacher and single mother, told JTA.

"Twice in my life I tried to participate in Jewish institutions, but I couldn’t fit," admitted Teitelbaum, whose parents preferred that she and her brother not get involved in Jewish centers. "They feared that we would move to Israel."

Teitelbaum’s children — Gonzalo, 13, Keila, 11, and Julian, 4 — attend public school, but she would like them to get involved with Judaism, too, she says. Thanks to a neighbor’s helpful advice, the family is currently receiving the equivalent of $63 a month from the Jewish social services system.

Teitelbaum had also been receiving funds to cover utility bills, but she decided to stop accepting that help a few months ago. "I obtained a job as a substitute kindergarten teacher. I can try doing without that help so someone else can receive it," she explained.

Her monthly income is the equivalent of $65.

That morning the adults had gathered in discussion circles to share with each other their feelings about the weekend. "Belonging" was the word that was repeated most often.

Two social psychologists who helped to coordinate the activities, Natan Sonis and Patricia Oppel, described the experience as very emotional for many of the adults. During one of the game activities on Saturday, the adults were asked to recognize prominent people pictured on two different poster boards: one showed well-known Jewish figures, the other, popular figures. While the Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona was identified by the participants, the former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was not.

For the younger program coordinators helping out at Las Clavelinas, getting the children to enjoy playing games was a challenge. "At the beginning, the children just jumped anxiously but were unable to play together, to understand the rules of the games. But today, they worked it out. The change was so sudden," Gustavo Rapaporte, the BAMA coordinator, told JTA.

"When asked what they usually do on weekends, most children said ‘I get bored.’ I am sure this one was a different weekend," said Rapaporte.

Organizers are determined that the vacation weekend will not be remembered as an isolated experience, Karina Rivlin, the Jewish Agency’s director of youth projects, told JTA. They intend to enroll younger participants in the Jewish youth groups and eventually assign the parents to Jewish community centers, according to their profiles. Betar Argentina was the first youth group to participate in this pilot vacation-weekend experience.

Before farewells were said, the relaxed and happy group toasted each other with refreshing juice drinks, sang a thank-you song created especially for the coordinators, and exchanged phone numbers.

"I made new friends," Shilda, an 11-year-old girl, told JTA enthusiastically.

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