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Around the Jewish World International Meeting Considers Ways to Help Poor Argentine Jews

December 14, 2001
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On the same weekend that Argentina’s economy minister, Domingo Cavallo, was telling the International Monetary Fund in Washington how urgently the country needs help to weather its economic crisis, a related seminar was beginning here.

“Confronting Poverty: Solutions, Experiences and Projects” was organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Tzedaka Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

This week’s two-day conference was called to discuss ways to help the approximately 50,000 Argentine Jews who live below the poverty line, many of them victims of the country’s wrenching economic crisis.

“The myth is definitely over: There are poor Jews,” Manuel Tenenbaum, director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said at the opening session.

About 650 participants — including 200 who came from other Latin American countries, the United States and Israel — attended sessions and workshops linked to the concept of “new poverty” in Latin America, particularly in Argentina, which has the largest middle class in the region.

The concept of new poor refers to people who used to belong to the middle class but could not survive the economic and political policies the government implemented in the 1990s.

These policies — while they led to some short-term gains — had negative longer term effects. Many middle-class Argentines lost jobs, closed shops, went into debt and auctioned off their houses. Small businessmen, small industrialists, state employees, professionals — all were affected.

“Members of the Jewish community are the test case of these policies, as they were on the front line of these politics and measures” because they are disproportionately represented in the middle class, said Bernardo Kliksberg, head of the Inter-American Initiative for Social Capital, Ethics and Development at the Inter-American Development Bank.

“In the 1990s, seven million middle class Argentines became poor,” Kliksberg said, adding that only 25 percent of today’s Argentina is middle class, as opposed to 53 percent in 1960.

According to Kliksberg, 300 Jewish families now live in shantytowns, while another 1,700 live crowded in small rooming houses.

At the unemployment office of the AMIA community center — the most important in the country for the Jewish community — the situation is changing dramatically. AMIA has received 500 work applications a month in 2001, as opposed to 1,000 for all of 2000.

Some 70 percent of the applications are coming from the young generation, according to Kliksberg.

“The situation is alarming — in the last two years, social assistance grew from 4,000 cases to 20,000,” Kliksberg said.

While the topics were relevant, participants in the congress griped about poor organization.

The event was delayed when featured speaker Eliane Karp de Toledo, first lady of Peru, was late. Long-winded speeches put the conference further behind schedule.

Some panels and workshops began an hour and a half later than expected. They then were abruptly interrupted as Argentina’s president, Fernando De la Rua, arrived for an evening session.

Among the prominent figures who came to Argentina for the conference were the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique Iglesias; Avi Beker, director of the World Jewish Congress; Chaim Chesler, treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel; and Rabbi Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress.

Members of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Organization of American States also attended.

“I am worried for the future of this Jewish community,” Jeffrey Wohlberg, rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, told JTA.

Wohlberg worked for three years in Argentina.

Harry Bodansky, of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, said he is most concerned that interfaith groups do not cooperate in Argentina as closely as in the United States. However, representatives from different faiths were part of the audience.

Bodansky also said that wealthy Argentine Jews do not do enough to help less fortunate members of the community, but have “a tendency to move wealth outside the country to protect it.”

For Kliksberg, the key to helping Argentine Jews is sending an SOS to the Jewish world.

Beker, of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

“Today the Jews in Argentina are suffering. They are a community in distress. We have to put this issue on the world Jewish agenda because the Jewish world is not yet aware enough,” Beker told JTA.

Jews in Argentina “do not need help to structure Jewish organizations, they need help to maintain their solid institutions,” he continued. “Money from Holocaust institutions should go now to Argentina as well as other Latin American countries.”

The economic crisis is not confined to Buenos Aires. Regina Galanternick de Gotleyb, a volunteer at the Israelite Association in northern Argentina, spoke of her work with Tzedaka, a Jewish organization dedicated to social assistance.

In just six months, Galanternick de Gotleyb said, they had found 100 Jews in need of food and medicine.

“We were surprised because most of them were not retired but were between 30 and 50 years old, with children to take care of,” she told JTA.

For Alberto Minujim, regional adviser of UNICEF, “The problem in Argentina is not the impoverishment, it is despair. We do not know were the floor is, how much farther down there is to go. This is an accelerated process of change in a country that is falling down.”

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