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Around the Jewish World Economic Crisis Turns Dreams into Nightmares for Argentine Jews

December 11, 2001
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Like the more than 2 million Jews who came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century in search of the American dream, thousands went further south — to Argentina — hoping to find a brighter future.

Now, however, with Argentina in the throes of a wrenching economic crisis, the immigrants’ descendants find their dreams shattered.

There are approximately 50,000 Argentine Jews living below the poverty line, Bernardo Kliksberg, of the Inter- American Development Bank, told JTA.

Some 220,000 Jews live in Argentina. Of those, Tzedaka, a Jewish organization dedicated to social assistance, estimates that it will assist 3,553 families this year.

Another 80 families are on a waiting list. Nora Blaistein, director of social programs at Tzedaka, told JTA.

Since 1999, when the economic situation worsened, there has always been a waiting list of Jews seeking help.

AMIA, another center assisting poor Jews, is helping 1,500 families this year, Elida Kisluk, director of AMIA’s social action department, told JTA.

At Tzedaka, 30 percent of the people receiving assistance are considered long-term poor, while the other 70 percent are called "new poor" — those who used to belong to the middle class until they lost jobs and income.

Not only can they no longer satisfy their cultural and educational aspirations; even basic needs such as food, medicine and shelter are not fulfilled.

"Feelings of shame, impotence and frustration make this group break ties with family, friends and Jewish institutions," Blaistein said.

"Around 40 percent of people" in this category "are so ashamed that they do not ask for help," she said. "They go for assistance only when the rope around their necks gets too tight."

AMIA’s Kisluk told a similar story.

"The people we receive at AMIA are in anguish; their self-esteem is broken," she said. "Their family roles have been changed."

The typical family structure — of a father who serves as breadwinner — simply doesn’t hold up anymore in such a crisis, placing a strain on family relations.

To deal with the crisis, a conference, "Confronting Poverty: Solutions, Experiences and Projects," is being held this week in Buenos Aires. The Latin American Jewish Congress, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Tzedaka Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee organized the event.

Kisluk and Blaistein agree that the number of middle-class families sliding into poverty has accelerated since the mid-1990s.

The main challenge now for the Jewish poor, both aid workers say, is the loss of home, accompanied by unemployment.

Some 300 Jewish families now live in shantytowns, according to Kliksberg.

In some cases, the housing crisis has forced up to four generations of a family to live under one roof, according to Monica Gruska, coordinator of a social assistance center that works with Tzedaka.

The organizations provide credit for building or repairing houses, paying rent, buying food and medicine and getting psychological assistance, as well as grants for clubs, schools, recreational and cultural events.

But even that often isn’t enough.

Two institutions have emerged at the forefront of efforts to help Jews in poverty.

One of AMIA’s programs helps by connecting people who need a room to rent but can’t pay a deposit with people who have space to rent and need money. So far, they have arranged 35 rentals this way.

One of Tzedaka’s main achievements has been building 12 houses in the Buenos Aires area.

In addition, the JDC and Chabad-Lubavitch are helping as well.

But the government and many nongovernmental organizations are unprepared to work with these middle-class families that became poor, Kisluk said.

Susana and Ricardo Schatz are far from achieving the dreams that many Jewish immigrants to Argentina once had.

They still have touching memories of the night they met at a Jewish ball in 1974 at the Romanian Embassy here. Susana, 45, wore a golden necklace with her name on it; Ricardo, 48, read it and won her heart by addressing her as if they already knew each other.

Nothing could separate the two after that night of dancing. The humble origins of Ricardo’s family initially bothered Susana’s parents, but eventually they accepted him. After the wedding, Susana’s parents bought the couple a three- bedroom house.

Ricardo worked at his father-in-law’s small clothing factory. When Susanas’ father sold the factory, the couple rented a small store and ran their own clothing business.

The 1980s were good years for the Schatzes. They employed Susana’s father, Ricardo’s brother, two cutters, a seamstress and a presser. They traveled around Argentina and to Brazil. After years of expensive medical treatments, they were able to have children.

At the beginning of the 1990s, however, their business went into the red. They lost clients because of competition with bigger shops, and started to write checks that couldn’t be covered by the funds coming in. They took on more debt until they had to close the business. When their mortgage payments became too high, they lost the property at auction.

The Schatzes moved in with Ricardo’s parents for two years, and have lived with Susana’s parents for the last three.

However, the family’s economic situation have made relations with his in-laws intolerable for Ricardo.

"I do not speak to them. I even go to a gas/coffee shop to wait until it is late enough not to see them," Ricardo said of Susana’s parents.

Ricardo and Susana now sell manufactured goods to retail shops.

But the factories they work for are behind on their payments to the Schatzes. They pawn whatever jewelry they have. Their children have been allowed to go to Jewish schools on grants.

With almost no income, the Schatzes cannot even accept a grant to start renting an apartment, because they won’t be able to make subsequent payments.

Yet they rejected the food box Tzedaka offered.

"We know we are poor from here," Susana said, putting her hand on her pocket. "But we couldn’t accept a donation."

The family is considering trying to make a new life in Israel — a solution for many struggling Argentine Jews.

Each year, some 1,500 families decide to leave from the community, according to Noe Davidovich, one of the heads of AMIA. Not all of them leave because they are newly poor; many emigrate before they fall that far.

Of the 320 families with children at the Jewish Emanu-El school, 14 have decided to move to the United States, Canada or Israel. Another 10 families are weighing the option.

All but one of the families that left did so because of unemployment, Lea Vainer, the school’s general director, told JTA.

Cynthia and Javier Szkop, both in their mid-30s, are one Emanul-El family that has decided to leave Argentina.

Cynthia trained as a kindergarten teacher and Javier has a degree in computers.

Cynthia was laid off from a Jewish school, along with 100 other employees, in a downsizing last March. Javier feels he doesn’t have good professional horizons in Argentina.

"We are tired of arguing between us at the end of every month because we don’t know how to do magic and pay the bills," Cynthia said. "We could send our kids to a worse school, but we don’t want to reduce our standards for a good Jewish education."

When their papers are ready, the Szkops are planning to move to Canada.

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