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Around the Jewish World As Argentine Crisis Deepens, Jewish Community Streamlines

April 29, 2002
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Argentina’s economic crisis reached a new low recently when all banks closed, choking citizens’ already-limited access to cash.

Street demonstrations now end up at the banks, where people bang on the doors of the locked institutions. Banks were slated to open on a limited basis April 29, according to news reports.

This is not the Argentina that Alberto Senderey remembers from his childhood. But it is the one he’s trying to salvage — its Jewish community, at least — as an adult.

As the economic crisis deepens, the Jewish community is undertaking a major “re-engineering” to weather what Senderey expects will be four lean years.

If Senderey, the director of community development for Europe and Latin America in the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is able to help rebuild Argentina’s Jewish community, it will be like closing a family circle.

Senderey’s grandfather, Moses Senderey, a Zionist intellectual and Jewish educator, was one of the founders of the Argentine Jewish community. His father, Saul Senderey, was a prominent physician.

Some might say his pedigree makes Alberto Senderey an embodiment of the Argentine Jewish experience.

His family arrived during the great migration of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Argentina opened its doors to new immigrants.

The French Jewish philanthropist Baron De Hirsch bought land to establish Jewish colonies in Argentina’s provinces, where Eastern European Jews came to work the land.

Saul Senderey was born in the largest of those colonies, Mosesville, where everyone spoke Yiddish, he said.

“The only one who wasn’t Jewish was the policeman,” who had to learn Yiddish “to deal with the Jews,” Senderey said.

Like most Argentine Jews, Senderey’s grandparents sent their children to universities in the capital, paving the way for the community’s eventual migration from the provinces to Buenos Aires — where 80 percent of Argentina’s 200,000 Jews now reside.

“What I remember most” was that the community had “all kinds of possibilities,” Senderey said.

As a child, he attended Jewish day school and camps and joined more than 2,000 other Jewish kids every weekend for youth group meetings, he said.

And life was safe. Public transportation ran all night long, allowing the boys to escort girls home, even to distant parts of the city.

Senderey has seen the country through thick and thin. During the military regime of the 1970s and 1980s — responsible for the “disappearance” of some 30,000 Argentines — Senderey was director of Hebraica, Argentina’s largest Jewish community center, when a bomb exploded in the bathroom outside the 1,000-seat theater.

No one was injured, but power problems closed the theater — and a pro-Israel exhibit on anti-Semitism in Argentina — for six months.

Closing the theater was precisely the point, Senderey said, adding that the government prohibited any demonstrations and wasn’t keen on the center’s program.

It was a “classic” police maneuver, he recalled: Hebraica’s guard received a phone call 20 minutes before the explosion, and left his post shortly thereafter.

After running a center that offered a “gorgeous” Jewish life — clubs for every generation, sports teams and even a high school for the arts — Senderey knows what the Jewish community, now unable to afford institutions that can’t support themselves, is missing.

When he was heading Hebraica, Senderey said he was able to “create an incredible, rich Jewish life.”

Today, as the country copes with its grave economic crisis, “you try to keep as much as possible.”

That’s the reason for the re-engineering. In addition to a short-term strategy of providing food, shelter, medicine and jobs, the JDC has hired seven teams of consultants to merge the country’s Jewish institutions in an attempt to save money.

They chose Jewish consultants who understand the community, he adds.

Children will be concentrated into larger schools, which can offer them more opportunities.

Even if, as the Jewish Agency estimates, 5,000 Argentines emigrate to Israel each year, there still will be at least 160,000 Jews when Senderey estimates the crisis will end. That would leave Argentine Jewry as the sixth largest Jewish community in the world.

The reorganization means an “investment” of $1 million that should allow the community to become self-sufficient again, Senderey said.

“We have to think in big terms,” Senderey said. “The goal is to build a bridge for three to four years,” to help people through the economic crisis and recreate a self-sufficient Jewish community in Argentina, as there was for a century.

“Imagine,” he said “to jump from 5,000 to 25,000” poor Jews in a community. “No community in the world” can handle that alone.

Meanwhile, Argentina is becoming increasingly dangerous, with people desperate and hungry and the crime rate soaring.

One recent scene seemed to capture the mood of the country. Just outside the ritziest hotel in Buenos Aires, a man lay face down in the pavement, an officer’s heel digging into his back and his wrists tied, saliva dripping onto the curb.

Around the corner, a similar scene greeted guests at the hotel’s gilded entrance. Both men had been arrested for attempted robbery.

Despite the poverty-related crime that has affected Senderey’s own family — his nephew was nearly knifed over a bicycle, and a niece was punched in the mouth for no apparent reason — the crisis in Argentina is also an opportunity to streamline, he said.

For one thing, it’s brought solidarity to the Jewish community. And Senderey’s eyes are fixed on restoring the community’s spirit and treasures.

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