BUENOS AIRES, Feb. 23 (JTA) — The office is huge. Long shelves are crammed with thousands of Jewish books. Three tables are covered with mountains of papers — and there is literally not a single inch of naked wood. Telephones and cell phones are all ringing at once. Seated in front of the biggest table is Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, a Chabad-Lubavitch representative in Argentina. “I’ve been trying to clean up this mess for the past five years,” Grunblatt, 48, says. The 14-month-old economic crisis in Argentina has kept Grunblatt and his staff busy. His organization is helping many of Argentina’s estimated 200,000 to 220,000 Jews, many of whom are suffering as the country struggles to get its financial house in order. There are 22 Chabad centers throughout the country. In Buenos Aires and its outskirts alone, the group helps some 2,000 families with food vouchers, medicine, additional money for living expenses, as well as spiritual counseling. During the past months, Chabad has launched small business projects in the provinces of Buenos Aires and Tucuman to help a families make a living. Chabad has 40 years of official representation in Argentina. The group has a program on public television every Sunday morning, and it also hosts radio programs. During the past two years, Chabad has also started to work with the local Jewish welfare foundation, Tzedaka, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for programs including food vouchers, medicine and money for housing assistance. The Chabad-Lubavitch Foundation for Social Help opened in 1989, after an American representative of the Bank of America saw that a Jewish family in Buenos Aires was sending its children to a Catholic church for a glass of milk, Grunblatt says. “Since then, we have always searched where the people in need are, instead of waiting until they approach us,” he says. “And we realized there are lots of people that do not approach the biggest Jewish institutions out of shame.” For Jorge, an encounter with Chabad provoked a spiritual reawakening. A blond-haired computer analyst of 33, Jorge met by chance three months ago with an old elementary school classmate who gave him a tour of the Chabad Youth Center. Now, after 20 years of living a nonobservant life, Jorge, who declined to give his last name, observes Shabbat and lays tefillin. “I’ve discovered God’s presence,” says Jorge, who now volunteers in Chabad-sponsored projects. According to Grunblatt, only three families of the 2,000 that Chabad is helping observe Orthodox Judaism. “We help Jews in need, no matter the branch of Judaism they belong to,” he says. During the summer holidays, for example, the children of unemployed Jewish parents can attend summer camp for free — courtesy of Chabad, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the JDC. “It is amazing the way the community has organized itself to provide vacation camps for our kids,” said Myriam Podostrej, a 41-year-old unemployed mother who has two teen-age children. “We are going through a difficult time,” says Podostrej, who receives aid from the JDC and Tzedaka welfare programs. “To have our kids in Jewish, free activities while they are on school holidays is such a relief.” The summer program was especially designed for children who are not part of the Jewish formal education system as a way to introduce them to Judaism, Grunblatt says. “It is amazing the number” of circumcisions “we have performed on the teen-agers after they attended the summer camp. They just decided they wanted to,” he says. At many of the Chabad centers, there are soup kitchens. One of the biggest is in the area of Almargro Abasto. Ariel Lloroff, in charge of the soup kitchen there, told JTA that the staff has a list of 200 people for the daily lunch, but only 65 usually come. “Many are unable to pay for the bus and they cannot come if it is raining or too hot,” Lloroff says. Shlomo Levy, the rabbi in charge of the youth center, is proud of the volunteers on his crew. They provide assistance to 460 families, including 20 families who are in very precarious living conditions. For volunteers, their work is very personal. “We are not just mailmen. I go to every home,” Sebastian Soland, 27, told JTA recently. “I establish a relationship. I care for them. They wait for me.” Buenos Aires is empty on Sunday mornings in the summer. On a recent Sunday, the Chabad volunteers were the only people to be seen on the streets. And they were moving quickly on their rounds: Needy Jews were waiting.
Chabad-Lubavitch helps Argentine Jews