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Twinning and Immigration Programs Help Spell Relief in Troubled Argentina

April 2, 2002
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The UJC isn’t the only group spelling relief in Argentina.

In addition to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella of the federation system, other agencies on the ground and in North America are working to rescue the slipping society through twinning programs and immigration opportunities beyond Israel.

Among the rush of people, literally, starving to get out, 250 Jews flood the gates of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Buenos Aires each week seeking options to exit from the crumbling country.

The staff of four does its best to respond to 300 e-mails a week and about as many phone calls, but the demand outpaces quick solutions.

After all, 61 percent of the country wants to leave, said Enrique Burbinski, HIAS’ representative in Latin America.

While Israel is still the No. 1 choice for Jewish emigres, most of whom have had a strong Zionist education, not all want to endure the conflict there, despite Israel’s expense-paid immigration policy for the community.

An Argentine family of four who wants to move to Israel will receive about $69,000 — $28,000 from the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles immigration to Israel, and $41,000 from the Israeli government.

That covers housing, education, basic living costs, transportation, shipment of belongings and a Hebrew language program.

The Jewish Agency’s contribution comes directly from the $35 million allocation of the UJC’s $42.5 million campaign for Argentina. The rest of that money is primarily for relief on the ground.

HIAS instructs the community that Israel is their best option, and directs them to the Jewish Agency.

The Jewish Agency expects about 5,000 Argentine Jews to immigrate this year, up from 1,400 last year.

But it could be several times more than that if “all hell breaks loose,” said Yehuda Weinraub, the agency’s spokesman. And if the situation in Israel calms down, that could also elevate the numbers, said David Sarnat, executive vice president of the Jewish Agency’s North American Council.

HIAS is also working with the Jewish communities in Latin America, the United States, Europe and even New Zealand to find jobs and housing for Jews wherever it can.

But those numbers are slim compared to the exodus to Israel. Since December, HIAS says it has routed over 150 families to countries other than Israel, almost a third of whom went to Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Educational Service of North America is beginning a project to help transfer Argentine day school teachers to communities in America, where there’s a shortage in the field.

The concept is in its infancy and the group has yet to make a match.

One of the problems is that Argentine teachers have just committed to a new school year and are reluctant to leave, said Sidney Clearfield, vice president of JESNA’s Jewish Renaissance and Renewal Alliance with the UJC.

In the embattled equation between lifting desperate Jews out of Argentina and providing relief on the ground, several U.S. initiatives have emerged to address the latter.

New York businessman Norbert Mehl has come up with a plan to try to help his former country’s pre-eminent Jewish day schools.

According to the UJC, none of their emergency relief campaign for Argentina is dedicated to education there. the Jewish Agency — with funds separate from the UJC relief campaign — has historically allocated $4.2 million a year to education there, and this year they plan to tack on additional funds for the effort.

But Mehl is intent on something more.

He has devised a twinning program between two pilot members — the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy-Kushner Yeshiva High School of Livingston, N.J., and the Coligio Rabino Jose Caro of Buenos Aires — that will begin after Passover.

He is working with other schools to expand the model. In addition, JESNA has agreed to help publicize the initiative via e-mails, faxes and newsletters to schools and central agencies for Jewish education throughout North America.

As much an effort at promoting solidarity as providing funding, the sponsoring school can choose how it wants to participate. Schools can choose to raise funds for school lunches and other humanitarian assistance, or they can establish electronic dialogue between the students and teachers.

The twinning concept was also adopted by the North American Boards of Rabbis and the World Jewish Congress, co-sponsors of a Passover synagogue twinning project.

The twinning of synagogues is “very personal, very direct bonding between two communities,” said Schneier, who recently visited Argentina to see the situation first-hand.

It’s “rabbi to rabbi, congregation to congregation, as opposed to” the American Jewish community to the Argentine one, he said.

It’s a “very natural campaign to orchestrate at this Passover season,” a time when Jews are commanded to help the needy.

Schneier has identified 32 synagogues in Argentina that have been forced to open soup kitchens to feed their members and already paired them with nearly 70 synagogues in North America.

Synagogues were asked to send $1,800 to a partner congregation for Passover food and materials.

Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Committee of the Latin American Jewish Congress, said the interdenominational synagogue twinning has a very important “spiritual value.”

“It is an important message from the North American civil society to Argentina and its community,” said Kliksberg, who joined Schneier, WJC Chairman Israel Singer and several North American rabbis when they visited Argentina last month.

Schneier said he hopes the project will take off after the holiday.

Among the American synagogues involved in twinning is New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue. Both of the synagogue’s rabbis, Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein, were born in Argentina.

Their relief effort with their childhood synagogue, Bet El in Buenos Aires, dates back to December.

Bet El is feeding 600 people a day at one of the country’s main synagogue soup kitchens and relief centers.

They have already raised $80,000. Donors can earmark their dollars for food, cash assistance or scholarships for day school, and the funds are channeled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Bet El’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Daniel Goldman, said that now it is up to the rabbis to work together to most effectively use the assistance.

“Now we are the ones in need. And we do not have to be ashamed,” Goldman said. “It is money for educational programs and social assistance. And it is an emergency for us.”

According to Schneier, “Whether its JDC or UJC or NABOR, we’re probably contributing a fraction to what is needed in terms of monetary and material sustenance in Argentina,” which he called “the No. 1 crisis facing the Jewish people” outside of Israel.

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