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Around the Jewish World Economic Crisis Turns Dreams into Nightmares for Argentine Jews

December 25, 2001
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Like the more than 2 million Jews who came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century in search of the American dream, thousands went further south — to Argentina — hoping to find a brighter future.

Now, with Argentina in the throes of a wrenching political and economic crisis, the immigrants’ descendants find their dreams shattered.

Israel has responded with a plan to encourage immigration to the Jewish state, and the first wave of Argentine emigrants since the crisis arose were expected to arrive this week

But it is not clear how many of the 220,000 Jews in Argentina — 50,000 of whom live below the poverty line — will take advantage of the incentives.

Ironically, a major conference on Jewish poverty concluded here just days before the president of the country, Fernando de la Rua, was forced out amid charges of a corrupt government and a collapsing economy.

A caretaker president, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, took over Sunday, after several days of rioting and civil unrest. A special election has been slated for March.

The conference earlier this month, “Confronting Poverty: Solutions, Experiences and Projects,” was organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Tzedaka Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Several Jewish organizations are assisting families in economic need, but the resources are limited, aid workers say.

Most of the families seeking assistance are considered “new poor,” people who used to belong to the middle class but could not survive the economic and political policies the government implemented in the 1990s.

These policies — while they led to some short-term gains — had negative longer term effects. Many middle-class Argentines lost jobs, closed shops, went into debt and auctioned off their houses. Small businessmen, small industrialists, state employees, professionals — all were affected.

“Members of the Jewish community are the test case of these policies, as they were on the front line of these politics and measures” because they are disproportionately represented in the middle class, said Bernardo Kliksberg, head of the Inter-American Initiative for Social Capital, Ethics and Development at the Inter-American Development Bank.

“In the 1990s, 7 million middle-class Argentines became poor,” Kliksberg said, adding that only 25 percent of today’s Argentina is middle class, as opposed to 53 percent in 1960.

According to Kliksberg, 300 Jewish families now live in shantytowns, while another 1,700 live crowded in small rooming houses.

At the unemployment office of the AMIA community center — the most important in the country for the Jewish community — the situation is changing dramatically. AMIA has received 500 work applications a month in 2001, compared with 1,000 for all of 2000.

Some 70 percent of the applications are coming from the young generation, according to Kliksberg.

“The situation is alarming — in the last two years, social assistance grew from 4,000 cases to 20,000,” Kliksberg said.

Tzedaka, a Jewish organization dedicated to social assistance, estimates that it will assist 3,553 families this year, with another 80 families on a waiting list to receive help.

AMIA is helping 1,500 families this year, said Elida Kisluk, director of AMIA’s social action department.

The JDC and Chabad-Lubavitch also are helping with special programs.

The organizations provide credit for building or repairing houses, paying rent, buying food and medicine and getting psychological assistance, as well as grants for clubs, schools, recreational and cultural events.

But that often isn’t enough, which is leading many Argentine Jews to consider emigration.

So far this year, about 1,500 Argentine Jews have immigrated to Israel, a 30 percent increase over last year.

Jewish Agency for Israel officials estimate that number may double next year, depending on how the situation in Argentina plays out.

Meeting in emergency session Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Sallai Meridor, head of the Jewish Agency, decided to offer Argentine immigrants a package of special benefits, valid for the next year.

Each immigrant family will receive financial aid of up to $20,000 for purchasing an apartment. Two-thirds of the sum will be given as a loan; the rest will be a grant.

In addition, each family will receive a $2,500 relocation grant, in addition to the regular benefits new immigrants receive.

Some 63 new immigrants were expected to arrive in Israel on Tuesday.

Susana and Ricardo Schatz, far from achieving the dreams that they and many Jewish Argentines once had, hope that Israel will provide them new opportunities.

The 1980s were good years for the Schatzes, who are in their 40s. They ran their own clothing business and employed a small staff. They traveled around Argentina and to Brazil. After years of expensive medical treatments, they were able to have children.

At the beginning of the 1990s, however, their business went into the red. They lost clients because of competition with bigger shops, and started to write checks that couldn’t be covered by the funds coming in. They took on more debt until they had to close the business. When their mortgage payments became too high, they lost the property at auction.

They moved in with family members and now sell manufactured goods to retail shops.

But the factories they work for are behind on their payments to the Schatzes. They pawn whatever jewelry they have. Their children go to Jewish schools on grants.

With almost no income, the Schatzes cannot even accept a grant to start renting an apartment, because they won’t be able to make subsequent payments.

Yet they rejected the food box Tzedaka offered.

“We know we are poor from here,” Susana said, putting her hand on her pocket. “But we couldn’t accept a donation.”

Other families opt for other places, like the United States or Canada.

Cynthia and Javier Szkop, both in their mid-30s, are one of many families with children at the Jewish Emanul-El school that have decided to leave Argentina.

Cynthia Szkop trained as a kindergarten teacher and Javier has a degree in computers.

She was laid off from a Jewish school, along with 100 other employees, in a downsizing last March. Javier feels he doesn’t have good professional horizons in Argentina.

“We are tired of arguing between us at the end of every month because we don’t know how to do magic and pay the bills,” she said. “We could send our kids to a worse school, but we don’t want to reduce our standards for a good Jewish education.”

When their papers are ready, the Szkops are planning to move to Canada.

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