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For Local Argentines, Ujc Mission Elicits Combination of Pain and Pride

April 16, 2002
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For three days last week, dozens of North American Jews moved around this rainy, autumnal city aboard four large, green-and-white buses.

The group from the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system, was on a fact-finding mission to see firsthand how the ongoing economic crisis is affecting Argentine Jews.

Some people from the local Jewish community had the chance to talk to them. Others just saw them pass by with the name tags around their necks, and opened eyes, notebooks and pens.

Although most of the Argentine Jews interviewed by JTA felt the mission’s visit was a positive one, many also said it raised difficult questions for the local community:

Who will make the decisions about what to do to rescue the once-thriving community? Were the mission members able to fully grasp the extent of the crisis that has its roots in history here? Did the local Jews understand that in the final analysis, the solutions will have to emerge from the Argentine Jews themselves?

The mission participants came from nearly 50 communities around North America to see how UJC’s $42.5 million campaign will help Argentina’s Jews.

UJC’s overseas partners, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, will be the recipients of those funds, with $35 million earmarked for the former for immigration and absorption to Israel and $5 million to the latter for relief on the ground.

Representatives from AMIA, the main Jewish institution in Buenos Aires, and DAIA, the Jewish umbrella organization, made it clear that the presence of such a large group from UJC demonstrated the level of concern and interest of a sister community that is trying to understand what is going on in Argentina.

However, both representatives expressed some concerns.

Daniel Pomerantz, the administrative director of AMIA, said that “although it is valuable, it is very limited what the mission can get out of a three-day visit.”

For his part, Alfredo Neuburger, the spokesman for DAIA, said the Argentine Jews should not be fooled into thinking that the UJC “came here to save us.”

“The Argentine Jewish community,” he said, “has to be aware that the solution will have to come from our own local community.”

In that regard, he said, many decisions have been made in Israel and New York and “that is not worthy of us,” Neuburger told JTA.

Rabbi Sergio Bergman of Libertad Temple agreed that the mission’s trip should not be perceived “as if they came to sort out our problems.”

For that reason, he pointed to the give-and-take roundtable discussions between the mission participants and members of the local community as one of the most valuable elements of the trip.

At one such session, UJC visitors mingled with local Jewish representatives at 25 separate tables in the elegant Roof Garden hall of the Alvear Palace Hotel.

Seated with two American rabbis and three federation representatives were Rosana Kuravsky, from the young Jewish organization, “Einstein Virtual Group;” Jorge Zeiguer, from Keren Hayesod; and Silvia Pruss, a volunteer and head of the Women’s Program of the Tzedaka social service organization.

As the voice of the young leadership, Kuravsky emphasized that “the mission’s visit allows us to review our situation, to think it over and over.”

For her part, Pruss said it was important to “show the mission how much we work inside the local community and how much solidarity has grown” as a result of this crisis.

Zeiguer, who works on educational projects at Keren Hayesod, the international counterpart to the United Jewish Appeal, said his first reaction to the UJC mission was one of “anguish” because it showed just how much local institutions were desperate for help.

Prior to the visit, he said, his staff received a flood of calls from schools, asking what they could do to demonstrate to the mission their individual needs.

Baruj Zaidenknop, the director of the ORT Jewish school, said the needs of the community differ from institution to institution.

Some of the institutions “are beaten because of the current crisis,” he said, while others, such as ORT, do not have economic problems per se, but the families from the schools are in trouble.

Among the ordinary Argentine Jews who encountered the UJC mission, there were mixed reactions.

Noemi Casabe, a volunteer at the welfare center at Bet El Jewish Congregation, said she felt proud when she saw some 40 members of such an important delegation walk through the dining room where she serves food to Jews in need every day.

But Gloria Trachter, the head of welfare programs at Bet El, said she felt mainly “sad” because it made her realize that “despite all the work we do daily, our own community” has become so needy.

During the mission’s visit, a group of elderly people was having tea in the basement dining room.

The group had been asked to arrive earlier than usual to meet the mission, but in the end it was a brief encounter.

“They just came, looked and left. And I wanted to tell them how insecure I feel,” said 80-year-old Fany Paluba.

Others also said they wished they had been better informed about who this group was and what they were doing here.

Still, others, however, were grateful.

“I study architecture and all my savings are focused on my studies,” said Sebastian Klymkiewiez, 28, who is scheduled to talk to the Jewish Agency about making aliyah.

“I know when I graduate I will have no more money. But the Jewish Agency will help me to make aliyah.”

Seeing that these visitors wanted to hear his story and are behind his plans, he said, “I feel so lucky.”

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