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Basel’s Jews Extend Invitation to Jews Facing Chaos in Argentina

April 26, 2002
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The dwindling Jewish community of this city, known for hosting the First Zionist Congress in 1897, is reaching out to distant cousins suffering economic disaster in Argentina.

Hoping to perform a double mitzvah, the Swiss community is hoping to rescue Jews from Argentina’s financial chaos — and, in the process, infuse their own community with new life.

In an effort that began last fall, the Jews of Basel placed ads in Jewish newspapers in Argentina alerting people to the economic opportunities in this city on the Rhine.

“We have now intensified our effort,” said Basel Jewish community board member Rene Spiegel, one of the driving forces behind the plan.

“We have a young person in Buenos Aires who is speaking to people there, and we are trying to help create an infrastructure to help applicants with their documentation,” Spiegel said.

Meanwhile, community members are scouting for jobs in the city’s famous pharmaceutical industry. Several firms have helped by alerting the Jewish community here to available jobs.

In addition, efforts are under way to create scholarships and stipends for short-term academic stays.

In those cases, it is important that applicants have excellent German language skills. But for jobs in the high tech and pharmaceutical sectors, English is the common language.

“Other communities are doing other things” to help Argentine Jewry, Spiegel said. “You have to feed people and give them clothes, but that is the sheer minimum.

“As we say here, it’s a drop of water on a hot stone,” he said. “We wanted to do something that was lasting.”

It’s not a long-distance relationship, but a long-term one, that the Baselers want.

“We felt this would be one way to bring in people with small children, who might use our kindergarten” and take advantage of the many other offerings of a stable and active Jewish community, Spiegel said.

These include religious, educational and sports opportunities. Basel even boasts a Jewish curling club.

The Basel Jewish community centers around its synagogue, which was built in 1868 and has been in continuous use ever since, aside from one season when it was closed so it could be enlarged.

When Spiegel joined the community’s board nine years ago, the Jewish population was about 1,800. Today there are 1,250 in a city of 200,000.

At its postwar peak some 30 years ago, the community had about 2,000 members.

Today, the situation in the Jewish school reflects the declining community.

“Some classes cannot be done any more,” said Daniel Rothschild, a local businessman. “The utmost will be done to avoid closing schools, but the minimum to run a class is two or three children.”

Some classes already have reached that level.

“I’d say that’s the negative result of our own positive work,” said Rothschild, whose oldest child is living in Israel with her husband and their new baby. “We have an extremely high percentage of aliyah.”

In addition, the community is feeling the effects of assimilation and mixed marriage.

The decline in size of the local Jewish population “is more than a linear process,” said Spiegel, 59, who teaches clinical psychology and psychopharmacology and works as a medical expert for the Novartis pharmaceutical firm. “Once it starts, it moves rather quickly, and we want to stop it.”

In contrast, neighboring Germany boasts the fastest growing Jewish community in the world, thanks to immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the last ten years.

Germany has a flexible immigration policy for Jews as a form of reparation for the Nazi expulsion of Jews from Germany and for the Holocaust.

Switzerland, on the other hand, has far more restrictive immigration policies.

Economic refugees are not accepted. An immigrant ideally must be highly qualified and have a perfect fit with an available job.

“They want to get out of Argentina, and I can understand that,” said Baseler Thomas Lyssy, vice president of the Jewish Community of Switzerland. “And we need people. If you don’t have kids, you don’t have a day school. There have been no weddings here in years.”

“We already have some people here on a provisional status, and we expect the first families in the summer,” said Spiegel, who rejects suggestions that Swiss Jews are trying to make up for not having helped enough refugees during the Nazi era.

“You cannot blame anyone who lived through that time,” said Spiegel, who has studied historical documents from World War II. “I have seen what the Swiss Jews did, how they collected money and rented houses [for refugees] and did their utmost and more.”

“The Basel authorities were very, very liberal in contrast to the federal authorities,” he added. “They found all kinds of ways to help refugees. I don’t think they have to make up for anything.

“On the contrary,” he said. “We live here in freedom and prosperity, and I think we can share a little bit with the others.”

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