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Argentine Jewish Crisis Reaches Doorstep of Miami’s Community

February 28, 2002
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As communities across the United States look to help Jews in Argentina harmed by the ongoing economic and social crisis, Miami need look no farther than its own backyard.

For years, Miami has been helping Argentine Jews acclimate to the United States, but the community will be broadening its assistance.

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation voted last week to launch a special campaign to raise at least $1 million to help the 200,000-strong Jewish community in Argentina, help the hundreds of Argentine Jewish families already in Miami and promote Argentine immigration to Israel.

The Miami community realizes it has to work on such a three-way approach because “there is no one answer for what to do,” said Michael Winograd, the federation’s assistant director of community planning.

Although the Israeli government is offering incentives to Argentine Jews to make aliyah, there are many who have roots in the Miami community already.

“It’s not like everybody is going to hop on a plane to Israel,” Winograd said.

“You have Jewish people in need in your community,” he explained. “You’re not going to turn your back on them.”

The organized American Jewish community has been scrambling over the past few months, trying to assess the best strategy and fund-raising plans to help Argentine Jews in need as well as those who plan to immigrate to Israel.

The United Jewish Communities — the umbrella of the federation system — set up a task force and is planning to allocate $5 million for emergency services for Jews in Argentina through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Miami, meanwhile, is trying to work all fronts.

While no one knows for sure how many Argentine Jews currently reside in the area, at least 400 families have arrived over the last two years, when the Argentine economy began to unravel, local Jewish officials say.

Even more have arrived since the political and economic situation collapsed a few months ago.

The federation just sent $250,000 to the JDC to help with immediate welfare needs in Argentina, particularly for the more than 20,000 Jews living below the poverty line.

It is also helping to promote immigration to Israel, especially for Argentine Jews living in Miami illegally, said Jacob Solomon, the federation’s executive vice president.

But for those Jews already in Miami, the issue is “tricky” because while the Jewish community wants to be welcoming and help families take care of basic needs, it does not want to encourage additional illegal immigration, Solomon said.

“We want to create a climate that we as a community are here for you,” he said. “If you are slipping through the safety net, we will catch you.”

The community comes to the current crisis with experience.

The Jewish community’s Latin American Migration Program has helped Jews from Argentina and other Latin American countries move to Miami-Dade County since 1999.

Together with the Jewish Community Services of South Florida, the program assists with affordable housing, emergency funds for food and clothing, Hebrew schools and health services.

The situation just got more complicated as the Justice Department last week ended the program that allowed Argentines to travel to the United States without a visa.

U.S. officials, noting an increase in the number of Argentines traveling to the United States in recent months, since the Argentine economy collapsed, were fearful that Argentines would come and stay illegally past the 90-day period.

Many Argentine Jews have done just that over the years, boosting their numbers and likely giving Miami the largest concentration of Argentine Jews in the United States.

Despite concerns about the Jews’ illegal status, the Miami community has felt compelled to help.

There is a strong consensus from the community and within the federation leadership that Jews have to be helped no matter what, said Judy Gilbert-Gould, director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council.

Now, she said, they are faced with the “tachlis”– or the actual way to do what’s needed.

The federation set up a Latin American Immigration planning committee six weeks ago in the hopes of achieving consensus decisions on the particulars–meaning what services they can provide and making sure that those services remain within legal bounds.

The committee is made up of service providers, rabbis, JCRC staff and Argentine Jews.

At the same time, the Israel Aliyah Center, which is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel, hired additional staff and is making the rounds at local synagogues to tell Argentines about their aliyah options.

There have been at least 20 interviews with Argentine Jews over the last two months, according to Ran Sagee, the center’s director, and six people have already gone to Israel.

The center is doing everything to expedite the process.

“The minute they are ready to go, we are ready,” Sagee said.

Some 3,000 to 5,000 Argentine Jews are expected to make aliyah this year from Argentina.

The cost of an aliyah package for a family of four — which includes airline tickets, shipping household goods, housing and Hebrew ulpan — is around $28,000, or $7,000 per immigrant.

The Jewish Agency recently approved a $140 million budget for Argentine Jews who immigrate to Israel. The money is based on the possibility of 20,000 Argentine Jews moving to Israel during the next few years.

Argentine Jews –both in Argentina and Miami — are still considering all options but some could end up making decisions that could split families apart.

On the one hand, Israel is offering benefits packages that are enticing, but many Argentines do not want to send their children into the Israeli army, Sagee said.

On the other hand, with the visa waiver program gone, Miami is not as viable an alternative as it once was.

Beatrice Minuchin, a 49-year-old divorcee who just arrived in Miami in January, must decide whether to stay in Miami or go to Israel by April.

One thing is for sure, she is not going back to Argentina.

“It is impossible to live there,” she said in a phone interview from Miami this week.

“There are no possibilities for anyone. I have to begin again.”

Minuchin left three of her four children behind in Argentina, but one daughter is in school in Miami and her parents live in the area as well. Her brother and his family, still in Argentina, plan to make aliyah in May.

Minuchin said she wants to hear all the options about employment and housing opportunities before she makes her decision, though she is looking for her new country to be a place that “respects people.”

“I want to have a life with dignity,” she said.

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