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Argentine Jews Find Challenges As They Forge New Lives in Israel

January 16, 2002
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Saul Wainbuch, a 54-year-old accountant from Argentina, never expected to move to Israel.

But with his only son living on a kibbutz and a financial crisis raging in his homeland, he and his wife decided to make their home here.

Tall and solid, with a graying mustache covering a wide grin, Wainbuch is philosophical about making such a big change at his age.

"It’s a step-by-step process," he said with a shrug. "Because there is no other alternative."

It’s a similar story for hundreds of other Argentine Jews who are considering making aliyah.

One of Latin America’s largest economies recently collapsed after a four-year recession, leading to a painful currency devaluation.

The shattered economy and tense social crisis have prompted thousands of middle- and lower-class Argentines to think of leaving home.

"People are trying to get visas for Spain, Italy," said Agustin Zbar, Argentina’s deputy justice minister, who was recently in Israel for a conference of Jewish legislators. "There are long lines at the consulates. It’s not just the Jews who want to leave."

Some 200,000 Jews live in Argentina, 80 percent of them in Buenos Aires. In 2001, about 1,500 people immigrated to Israel from Argentina, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

According to estimates by the Jewish Agency for Israel, there are about 20,000 Jews in Argentina who are now on welfare.

The number of Argentines applying and preparing for aliyah has already reached 6,000 in the last few months, a Jewish Agency spokesman said.

And that’s not counting the hundreds of e-mail requests the agency receives every day.

For Israel — and specifically for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who wants to boost the number of Israel’s Jews — a massive Argentine aliyah could be a national boon.

The government wants to absorb those 20,000 Jews who are on welfare, and is handing out airline tickets and aliyah packages to make it a reality.

The Jewish Agency is investing some $20 million to encourage aliyah from Argentina, said Chaim Chesler, the agency’s treasurer.

Around $12.5 million will go toward aliyah costs, another $4 million to supporting Jewish schools in Argentina and the rest to help the community.

"We’re inviting them to come home," said the agency’s chairman, Sallai Meridor. "We don’t want to lose the opportunity of gaining any one Jew. We want to approach each and every Jew in Argentina."

During a recent visit to Argentina, Meridor met with hundreds of Argentine Jews interested in aliyah. They weren’t asking theoretical questions about Zionism, but concrete questions about how to immigrate to Israel, he said.

The outlook for Argentina "is very bad, particularly for the elderly," said Zbar, the Argentine deputy justice minister. "Pensions are being cut, and that’s going to hurt people in their 50s and 60s, people who once had a solid future."

Wainbuch, the Argentine accountant, was worried about his family’s future up until his last day in the country. So, too, was his friend Nestor Edelstein, an Argentine anaesthesiologist who is living in the same Ra’anana absorption center as Wainbuch and his wife.

Argentina has lost its future for the short term, said Edelstein, 43, who made aliyah with his wife — also a doctor — and two sons, ages 5 and 8.

"Coming to Israel was my opportunity to give my kids a future," said Edelstein, who still has family in Argentina.

For the last nine months, the Edelsteins and Wainbuchs have been enrolled in ulpan, learning Hebrew and getting to know their new country. They take pleasure in dropping Hebrew words into the conversation.

"I have gained a lot of savlanut" — Hebrew for "patience" — "during my time here," said Edelstein, who wants to take Health Ministry exams in order to start working as a doctor in Israel.

Wainbuch plans to take the Israeli accounting exams, and is currently doing some auditing work for a local Ra’anana firm.

Nevertheless, the bureaucracy in Israel and the differences between their former and new lives have made the adjustment difficult for many of the new arrivals.

"They don’t talk about the bombings, or the job market when encouraging you to come here," Edelstein said. "And it might sound silly, but there’s no night life here. It’s very different than South America."

The Jewish Agency is working closely with Israeli cities to absorb this latest wave of immigrants.

Nearly 60 cities have volunteered to take them in, creating a support system for them during their first months in Israel.

Along with the Argentine olim, new immigrants also are coming from South Africa and France, as well as the former Soviet Union.

"If we want new immigrants to feel a part of this land, we have to make them feel at home, not here on a trial basis," Meridor said.

According to a recent survey commissioned by the Jewish Agency, 80 percent of Israeli respondents are in favor of investing more in aliyah.

Meridor and his colleagues are hoping to find that kind of support on the ground for the Argentines.

They want Israelis to act as "buddies" to the new immigrants, helping them cope with a variety of tasks from setting up bank accounts to finding jobs and housing.

That’s all well and good, but what the Jewish Agency has to do is make the realities of life in Israel clear to potential immigrants, Wainbuch and Edelstein agreed.

"People need to know that it isn’t a Garden of Eden here," Edelstein said. "They need to understand the political situation and the economic situation. They need to know what real life is like here."

In the meantime, though, both men are working to acclimate to Israeli society.

The Israelis are very tough, said Wainbuch, not warm and outgoing like South Americans.

It’s a matter of time and of learning Hebrew, Edelstein ventured.

Wainbuch’s current goal is to learn enough Hebrew to qualify as an Israeli accountant. He also would like to move to Beersheba, which is near his son’s kibbutz. Ra’anana, a yuppie suburb near Tel Aviv, is too fancy for him.

"My wife and my son had a dream to move here," he said, shrugging. "I want to be where they are."

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