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Around the Jewish World Uruguayan Jews Hope Young Can Fuel Their Revitalization Efforts

September 12, 2002
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Uruguayan Jews are working to create a Jewish renaissance in their beleaguered country, where economic problems are mounting.

The major force behind the revitalization effort in Uruguay, whose economic woes are less well-known than neighboring Argentina’s, is the education-focused group Yavne, headed by 26-year-old accountant Marcelo Ellenberg.

Ellenberg recently visited Australia for the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship conference, which brought together 37 young Jewish leaders from 15 countries.

“Listening to and debating with some of the world’s leading Jewish academics and sharing experiences with other young communal leaders from all over the world will revitalize my drive to re-establish the Montevideo community,” Ellenberg told JTA. He was referring to Uruguay’s capital, where most of the country’s Jews live.

Once, the city was home to 60,000 Jews. Today, just 20,000 Jews remain in Montevideo, which has more than 3 million residents in total. Many moved to Israel, while others chose Spain, Italy or the United States.

A run on the banks early in the year raised fears of an economic crisis in Uruguay like that in Argentina, where a deep recession has brought banks to the verge of collapse.

The economic turmoil has seriously harmed Uruguay’s Jewish population. In June, the World Zionist Congress declared Uruguay’s Jewish community to be in a state of emergency.

Jews first settled in Uruguay in the 1770s, with many becoming farmers, ranchers and cowboys. The main wave of immigration took place at the turn of the 20th century from Eastern Europe. The community grew further as Jews sought refuge from the ravages of World War II.

Most Jews belonged to the city’s middle class, but many today find themselves impoverished.

As a result of the economic crisis, more than 3,000 Jews now live below the poverty line. Many families cannot afford basic essentials such as dental care and health insurance.

Jewish families in Montevideo are being evicted from their homes as they fail to pay mortgages or rent.

The Pincus Fund, established in Israel by a former South African lawyer, Louis Pincus, has come to the country’s aid. The fund has contributed more than $11 million to Jewish educational projects worldwide.

Using a $50,000 grant from the Pincus Fund — and additional aid from the Jewish Agency for Israel — Ellenberg and his co-leaders at the Yavne school, Dani Cohn and Marcelo Cynavotch, have injected new life into the struggling community.

That has included developing the modern Orthodox school, which was established in 1994 and now has 350 pupils.

“Our aim is that our youngsters and future generations will have a spiritually alive community to live in,” Ellenberg said. “It’s hard to predict the size of the community with so many leaving, and it’s hard to predict our needs as we struggle though this economic crisis. Assimilation is also a problem, but we are sure we can re-establish a healthy community through education.”

The community has implemented a kosher soup kitchen and provides daily meals to help impoverished Jews and needy students. It also has established a medicine bank for those who cannot afford to buy life-sustaining drugs.

Within the school, Ellenberg and his co-workers have established the only synagogue in Montevideo, offering three services a day and attracting more than 400 people to Shabbat services.

“Most of the people who come are from the younger generation,” Ellenberg said. “There is no doubt there is a Jewish renaissance taking place.”

But problems loom. The Pincus Fund grant for the school was intended as seed money, in expectation that the community would then be able to maintain it on its own. No more funds are due after October — but the community may not be able to finance the rest.

Some 55 percent of the children at the Yavne school are on scholarship, but it’s unclear if the scholarships can be maintained.

The school needs $480 for each of the 60 students that receive scholarships.

“We may not be able to self-finance” the synagogue, Ellenberg said. “We have to deal with a broken community and an older generation which on the whole will not get involved. It’s up to the youth.”

As efforts continue to re-energize Uruguay’s Jews, others are encouraging community members to move to Israel.

Following a request from the Jewish Agency for Israel, it was decided that Uruguayan immigrants to Israel would receive extra benefits, in line with those being offered to Argentine Jews moving to Israel.

But those who stay behind also want to have a rich Jewish life.

“It’s hard to predict what size our community will be in a few years time, but the hope of my fellow workers and myself is that out future sons and daughters will be able to enjoy a thriving and alive community as they grow up,” Ellenberg said. It’s “something we did not have.”

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