MEXICO CITY (JTA) — Last year, Bertha Avimelech landed a job managing Clyvia Boutique, a fancy dress shop fronting Avenida Masaryk in Mexico City´s upscale Polanco neighborhood. Avimelech, 45, earns the equivalent of $1,000 a month supervising seven salesgirls. That´s not even enough to buy any of the imported wedding gowns she sells to her wealthy customers — but in Mexico´s uncertain economy, every peso counts. “My husband and I have a jewelry store, and I used to work with him there,” she said. “But our sales went down, and what we were making didn´t cover the cost of our children´s school. So I went to Fundacion Activa to look for work, and they put me together with the owner of this store. If it weren´t for them, I would never have found this job.” Fundacion Activa was established in 1997 by the Comite Central de la Comunidad Judia de Mexico, or CCJM, an umbrella organization representing Mexico´s 40,000 Jews. Among the foundation´s projects is a job bank that matches businesses that need employees with members of the Jewish community looking for work. “If you ask me whether I´m poor I´d say no, I don´t consider myself poor,” Avimelech said. “But I know a lot of people in this same situation.” Indeed, even in suburban Mexico City — amid the glitzy shopping malls of Polanco and the stately mansions of Chapultepec — one can find increasing pockets of Jewish poverty. That´s because Mexico, whose economy is linked to the United States through NAFTA, has yet to recover from a recession that caused the country´s GDP to grow by only 0.9 percent last year, after it contracted by 0.3 percent in 2001. “About 85 percent of our exports go to the U.S. market,” said CCJM´s director general, Mauricio Lulka. “When the Americans aren´t buying, we´re not selling.” A chemical engineer by profession, Lulka explained that Mexico in the past was very protectionist. “But then we opened our borders to imports,” he said. “Many businesses, including Jewish-owned businesses, weren´t prepared for competition, so they closed.” While a handful of Mexican Jews — like Moises Saba, the billionaire owner of TV Azteca — are extremely rich, most community members are middle to upper-middle class, Lulka said. In fact, he said, “between 8 percent and 10 percent of Mexican Jewish families are considered poor by Jewish standards,” and receive some type of official assistance. “There´s definitely poverty in the Jewish community,” said Fundacion Activa´s director, Miriam de Picazo. “The middle class hasn´t disappeared, but every day it´s getting smaller. Our objective is to help people who, because of the economic crisis in this country, have lost their jobs or their businesses.” In the beginning the service was free. Since June 2002, however, employers who hire job candidates listed in the foundation´s Bolsa de Trabajo monthly bulletin are asked to make a tax-deductible donation equivalent to one-fourth of the applicant´s first-month salary. Between 1998 and 2002, about 65 percent of the 1,092 applicants interviewed by Picazo eventually were matched with Jewish employers. One of them was Benjamin Alfie. The father of two manages Mykonos, a discount apparel store in the heart of Mexico City´s historic district. Here, surrounded by noisy pushcart peddlers and taco vendors, Alfie sells blue jeans, underwear and T-shirts to the Mexican working class — people whose socioeconomic level is a lot lower than his own. A descendant of Syrian Jews from Damascus, Alfie, 38, speaks Spanish and Hebrew but never made it past high school. Instead, he went into the retail business and eventually opened his own clothing store. Sales dropped, and last year Alfie went to Fundacion Activa in search of employment. “Now I´m taking a course in business administration,” Alfie told JTA. He explained that the $1,800 monthly salary he receives isn´t enough to pay for his children´s school — even though the community picks up 40 percent of the tuition. Alfie could send them to public school, which is free, but says that´s not an option for him. “It´s very important that my kids get a Jewish education,” Alfie said. That attitude, prevalent in the community, may explain why only one in 10 Mexican Jews marries out of the faith — one of the lowest intermarriage rates in Latin America. According to CCJM estimates, around 95 percent of the country´s Jews live in sprawling Mexico City and its environs, mainly Polanco and the newer suburbs of Huixquilucan, Las Lomas and Cuajimalpa. The remaining 5 percent reside in the cities of Guadalajara and Monterrey, with smaller communities in Tijuana, Cancun and San Miguel de Allende. More significantly, 95 percent of Jewish families in Mexico belong to one of the country´s 25 or so synagogues, and 91 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish school — making for very strong religious identity and little assimilation. Anti-Israel demonstrations have increased somewhat in the last 12 months, but anti-Semitism generally is not a problem in this overwhelmingly Catholic society. “Mexico is a very poor country, with 40 percent of the population living below the poverty line,” said Renee Dayan-Shabot, director of Tribuna Israelita, a Jewish think tank. “So there is resentment against wealthy people here, but not because they´re Jews.” In early June, President Vicente Fox signed into law a landmark bill that forbids religious, racial, sexual or cultural discrimination of any kind, including anti-Semitism. “We´re very happy that something like this has been passed in Mexico,” Dayan-Shabot said. “We worked on this project for many years, and the Jewish community was part of the commission that analyzed this legislation.” Fox´s cabinet currently includes three Jews: Victor Lichtinger, secretary of the environment; Julio Frenk, secretary of health; and Santiago Levy, director of the Social Security Institute. Two Jews, Claudia Sheinbaum and Jenny Saltiel, also hold high positions in Mexico City´s municipal government. Despite Mexico´s current economic slowdown, Jews there are far better off than their brethren in Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, Mexico has attracted at least 200 Argentine Jewish families since Argentina´s economic crisis spiraled out of control in 1999. “Most of these newcomers are university graduates,” said Rabbi Palti Somerstein, a Buenos Aires-born rabbi who did a six-year stint in Bolivia before being hired by Mexico City´s Beth Israel Community Center several years ago. The Argentines come here, he said, thanks to Mexico´s relative prosperity and its Spanish-speaking culture. It´s also easier to get residency in Mexico than in the United States — especially since February 2002, when U.S. immigration authorities began requiring visas for Argentine visitors. “Our congregation has built a network in order to help them find jobs, health care and other necessities,” Somerstein said. “Some of them lost everything in Argentina, so they can´t go back. I personally have found jobs here for at least 30 of them.”The preceding is part of a 10-part series, “Latin America´s Jews.” Funding for this series was made possible, in part, by The George Rohr Foundation, Inc.
Network helps Mexican Jews