Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish Agency Looks at Argentina, Asks World Jewry for Financial Help

February 25, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel reach out to Argentine Jews in distress, world Jewish leaders are being asked to foot the bill.

It isn’t just food packages or community relief they’ll be providing. The way the government of Israel sees it, the Argentine crisis is an opportunity for mass immigration, a quantitative and qualitative increase in the Israeli population.

“The crisis seems to be the key that JAFI was looking for,” said Alan Shulman, co-chair of the aliyah and absorption committee.

The Jewish Agency for Israel approved a $140 million budget for Argentine Jews who immigrate to Israel. The money is based on the possibility of 20,000 Argentine Jews moving to Israel during the next few years. The decision came during a meeting in Jerusalem this week of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.

Some 200,000 Jews live in Argentina, 80 percent of them in Buenos Aires. Around 20,000 Jewish families are on welfare and need assistance after one of Latin America’s largest economies collapsed this winter, leading to a painful currency devaluation.

Many of the Jews in need have cars, apartments, clothing — all the trappings of an average middle class lifestyle. But they’ve lost their jobs and can’t afford to put food on the table.

It’s up to the Jewish Agency’s lay leaders to convince their communities that their donations should go to Argentina. Most of the money will help those Argentine Jews who want to move to Israel.

For the agency’s professionals, the aliyah effort makes sense.

“The government of Israel has said the Jewish people have to provide assistance to those who want to come on aliyah,” said Mike Rosenberg, director general of the Jewish Agency’s immigration and absorption department. “First we’re going to do it, and then we’ll get the money. That’s the only way.”

Some 3,000 to 5,000 Argentinean Jews are expected to make aliyah this year. The cost of an aliyah package for a family of four — which includes airline tickets, shipping household goods, housing and Hebrew ulpan — is around $28,000, or $7,000 per immigrant.

Fundraising in North America falls mainly to the United Jewish Communities, and to Keren Hayesod in other parts of the world. The UJC already is embarking on the Argentine fund-raising effort as part of its Israel Now campaign.

The Board of Governors also allocated an extra $2 million to the aliyah department for added expenses “on the ground in Argentina,” Rosenberg added.

Lay leaders, however, are going to have to figure out how and where to raise that kind of cash.

“It’s more difficult to raise money for Argentina than it was for the former Soviet Union, because the FSU was seen as the enemy and the Russian Jews were being persecuted,” said Philip Meltzer, a Board of Governors member and president of ARZA/World Union, the lay organization of the Reform movement in North America. “There’s no rallying cry for Argentina.”

Yet the situation facing Argentina’s Jews became clear to Jewish Agency leaders after spending a day visiting new immigrants in the Negev.

The group met with Patricia Levi, a single mother of five who moved from Buenos Aires to Beersheba in December.

“Israel offered the best possibilities for me and my children,” she said through a translator. “All our needs are being taken care of here.”

They also talked to Nahuel Waintrop, a curly-haired 16-year-old who has been in Israel for two months at the Ibim student village, a program designed to absorb students into Israel before their parents.

“It was very hard for my parents to let me go,” said Waintrop, an only child. “But it was also very hard in Argentina, and I really feel like I have a future here.”

The leaders — many of them North Americans — who visited the absorption centers asked immigrants what brought them to Israel and how they made their decision.

For Paola de Picciotto, a board member from Sao Paulo, Brazil, it was an opportunity to speak to some fellow Latin Americans and put them at ease.

“We’ve seen a similar kind of situation in Brazil,” said de Picciotto, who has worked with Keren Hayesod in San Paulo for 17 years. “People lose their dignity in these situations, and there has been a much stronger effect in Argentina.”

The government wants to absorb as many of the 20,000 needy Argentine Jews as possible. A mass Argentine aliyah could be a crucial demographic boon for Israel. Recent demographic projections have shown that, in several decades, Arabs could outnumber Jews in Israel.

In 2001, about 1,500 Argentines moved to Israel, a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

With global Jewish population growth close to zero, the Israeli government is putting a priority on aliyah to increase the Jewish population and help meet Israel’s demographic challenge.

At the same time, the agency is aware that most Argentine Jews aren’t going to move to Israel. To that end, it also is investing in Argentine day schools, helping families who can’t afford Jewish schooling for their children.

The Jewish Agency also is cooperating with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee on its relief efforts in Buenos Aires, which include food vouchers for Argentine Jews.

The JDC has earmarked an estimated $8.7 million in 2002 for Argentine relief efforts, but that could change if the situation worsens, said Amir Shaviv, the group’s assistant executive vice president.

The Jewish Agency’s Rosenberg calls the food vouchers and assistance to Jewish education “crutches that don’t promise a new future.”

But everyone has their own mission, countered Caryn Rosen Adelman, the Jewish Agency’s board development committee.

“If someone’s hungry,” she said, “you can’t talk about where to go next.”

Aliyah is where the agency is making a major effort. In addition to mobilizing all emissaries and local employees in Argentina to process immigrants, the Agency has sent short-term, emergency aliyah emissaries to serve as a reserve force for periods of two weeks to two months.

New offices are being set up wherever Jews reside in Argentina, including rural areas where some 45,000 Jews still live. Bureaucratic procedures for aliyah are being streamlined, with the goal of shortening the processing time for aliyah applications to one month.

“It’s a push-and-pull kind of situation,” Rosenberg said. “This isn’t the time to cut back on budgets.”

As the mission toured Argentina, Shulman once asked for a show of hands to see how many people support the Argentine aliyah effort.

Almost every hand went up.

“Of course, everyone believes that American Jewry has an obligation to world Jewry and the state of Israel,” Meltzer said. “It’s just not as easy a sell.”

Recommended from JTA