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Around the Jewish World Student-initiated Trip to Argentina Helps Local Depressed Communities

August 25, 2003
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Student trips to help needy Jews in Central and South America are nothing new.

But a recent visit came with a twist: It was organized by the students themselves.

“I thought that with the many young Jews who love visiting exotic places,” there would be enough candidates, says Shaanan Meyerstein, a 20-year-old student at Columbia University who already had volunteered at a Jewish camp for kids in Belarus and worked as a paramedic in Israel.

Meyerstein was right.

Fifty North American Jewish college students, representing 25 different universities, spent a month in Argentina helping local Jewish communities.

They paid $1,800 for the trip, including hotels, food and airfare.

The students painted and repaired Jewish buildings, spent time with kids and the elderly and cleaned up Jewish cemeteries. They also visited families struggling economically and those harmed during recent floods.

The trip didn’t focus on Buenos Aires, where most American Jews go who are traveling on missions to economically ravaged Argentina. The students spent most of their time in smaller communities.

The seed of the project probably came from the northwestern city of Tucuman — part of a mountainous region and home to 800 Jewish families.

The Tucuman Jewish community center is “twinned” with the MetroWest Jewish Federation of New Jersey. Tucuman’s rabbi, Salomon “Salo” Nussbaum, asked the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to help the Argentine region.

A Baltimore rabbi, Michael Meyerstein, visited Argentina last year and talked about the matter with his son, Shaanan.

Nussbaum and the Meyersteins then contacted Hune Margulies, from Larchmont, N.Y.

Margulies is the owner of a cultural and ecological touring company, and he is an economic development consultant for Latin American towns.

Born in Argentina in 1957, Margulies made aliyah 30 years ago, when Argentina’s unstable situation was heading for the dirty war, an era of government-sponsored political oppression and widespread disappearances. After marrying an American Jew in Israel, he and his wife moved to the United States in 1980.

Margulies was seduced by the project and immediately volunteered to help organize the trip.

The 50 students — aged 18 to 23, all but three from the United States — met for the first time on July 14 at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

Everyone had a second bag of luggage full of donated clothing and medicine, gathered from relatives and friends.

With only two months of previous organization, they became part of a religiously diverse group, including Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jews.

“It was positive chaos,” said Meyerstein, who found interested students through the Hillel network.

Early on the morning of Aug. 5, the group filled the lobby and the breakfast room at the Parliament Hotel to begin their work.

Some wore yarmulkes; all wore blue jeans.

Parked in an icy winter rain, four orange buses were waiting for them to start a day of work. The youths would be divided into four groups, accompanied by local security employees of the DAIA political umbrella institution.

One group went to Or Israel, a small community center placed in the Caballito neighborhood in the geographic heart of Buenos Aires.

Because the hard work every day usually was followed by evenings of Israeli and modern dance with local Jews, many participants used the bus to sleep.

Dalia Rotter, 21, a student attending college in Philadelphia who was raised in Los Angeles, sat silently on one trip, looking through the window at local residents were walking with umbrellas on busy streets filled with noisy horns.

“It is fascinating to be thousands miles away home and feel despite the cultural differences there is such a connection. In a completely different setting, I find people saying the same familiar prayers, using the same mezuzot, the same tallitot,” said Rotter, who was visiting South America for the first time.

Inside Or Israel, the stoves were off to save gas. Every student got spatulas and sandpaper to chip off the old painting and rags to clean the library books.

“I cannot believe they came from so far away to do this. And they are working hard. We are all Jews. This is so emotional,” said Jesica Mednik, a 20-year-old Argentine law student whose family is currently unable to pay the less than $2 monthly synagogue dues.

Student Gila Yasgur, 19, seemed to have forgotten she has asthma — for three consecutive days she was immersed in the dust of the old Or Israel walls that needed painting.

Earlier, in Tucuman, the group cleaned the graves of the Jewish cemetery, which doesn’t have enough money for upkeep. They also visited elderly residents in their homes.

“We visited a house of a woman whose husband died suddenly one year ago and was left with her kids and no economic support. Her house was in ruins, with no door, no windows,” said Meyerstein, who celebrated his birthday while in Tucuman. “She said we meant so much to her.”

Local residents “gave me the best birthday party I have ever had. With an enormous cake, on a warm Shabbat,” Meyerstein said.

The students in the group plan to continue working for the people they met.

“We plan to build awareness and, who knows, perhaps some economic support” for the communities, Meyerstein said.

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