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Visitors to Argentina Witness Demise of a Once-thriving Jewish Community

April 12, 2002
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It’s 10 p.m. on a weeknight and a group of teens chatter as they cross the broad and busy boulevard.

Lean, beautifully dressed women drape the arms of elegant men. And night light swirls around the boastful monuments and sprawling streets of Buenos Aires — the so-called “Paris of South America.”

Unless you look twice, you might not notice the “vende” for sale signs spotting the buildings, gates shutting every third shop, cafes sparsely filled, if at all, and the price fix menus priced at a modest $12 where they once were $70.

Unless you look twice, you might not know anything’s wrong here.

But the economic collapse in Argentina worsens by the day.

Defaulted on its foreign debt, the government has zero credit. Unemployment tops 22 percent, with unofficial figures as high as 35 percent — and that doesn’t include the 15 percent who work less than 10 hours a week.

Nearly half the population now lives below the poverty line — less than $70 a month — and 8,000 new lives cross that threshold each day.

The middle class — once the status of most of the 200,000-strong Jewish community — has borne the brunt of the crisis. While 30 percent of Jews are unemployed, 44,000 live below the country’s poverty level.

A delegation from United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American federations, visited Argentina this week to survey the impoverishment of the country’s Jewish community, the sixth largest community in the world.

The fact-finding mission of 162 people even garnered publicity in the local mainstream paper.

The three-day mission, which ended Thursday, whisked participants around Buenos Aires, where 80 percent of the country’s Jews live.

They saw what were once the community’s crowning heights — its synagogues and day schools, community and relief centers and world renowned seminary — now braving new lows.

They 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.

The UJC decided earlier this week to fold the funds being raised for aliyah into an overarching “We Stand With Israel Now and Forever” fund-raising drive.

Mission participants were almost as astounded at the community’s rich Jewish identity and activity as its profound losses.

“It’s as if the economic floor had been pulled out from the Jews of Westchester, Great Neck, Pepper Pike, Ohio and Ladue, Mo.,” said Paul Menitoff of New York.

“Because I really think the substantial number of middle-class Jews here are” or “are in the process of hitting” rock bottom.

But even as many Jews here are desperate to leave, it’s not an easy decision.

It’s been an active, thriving community, with 25 percent of the children attending Jewish day schools and a strong Zionist identity.

Armando Schmelz, born in Argentina, thought he would die in Argentina.

But his words — there is no future here — resound like an eerie echo in this city.

Schmelz and his wife, Maria, will send their son, Pablo, 15, to Israel next week.

Soon they, too, will follow.

“If you stay in Argentina, what are you going to do?,” he asked. “Stay in bed and sleep.”

As for leaving one crisis for another one in Israel, he said that poverty has wreaked such violence that he worries constantly that his son might be pushed off the train and killed for his $10 sneakers.

Indeed that has become a common form of robbery here.

For his son’s sake, the answer is Israel.

“I am giving wings,” he said, red-faced and shuddering hard. “He will fly.”

Argentina has never wanted for political catastrophe.

The military junta behind the “dirty war” of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was responsible for the “disappearance” of 30,000 people, including many Jews, still haunts everyone’s consciousness.

And the Jews, though prominent here with proud and numerous institutions, talk of latent anti-Semitism.

Most believe that the Iranian-backed fundamentalist group Hezbollah, with local police collusion, was behind the bombings of the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA building, a major Jewish facility here 10 and eight years ago, but the Jewish community insists officials have dragged their feet on the still-unsolved cases.

In the South American tone of warm and easy, locals say life goes on. Still, no one seems to recall being burned this badly.

The economic fallout is a result of years of mismanagement and, as the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina, James Walsh, bluntly told the mission Wednesday night, the “C word — corruption.

The United States is working to help Argentina, Walsh said, but it first wants to be sure that American taxpayer money won’t go to the pockets of government officials.

The International Monetary Fund, which is also holding off loans, has scolded the country for reneging on past obligations.

As they moved around the city, federation leaders saw the work of the JDC agencies helping to provide relief on the ground and the Jewish Agency providing an exit path out of the country.

The JDC services over 20,000 people in its 38 centers across the country with its local partner, the Tzedekah Foundation.

In a JDC/Tzedekah microbusiness center that creates employment for Jews, Rodolfo Kleidermacher, who worked in a bank for 20 years, is a driver for the center’s car service.

Women make challah from scratch to sell at local synagogues or Jewish community centers.

In another JDC/Tzedekah center partnered with a local synagogue, a pharmacy provides free samples from doctors.

At the same synagogue, people gather for afternoon tea, where a rabbi singing Hebrew songs rouses people to dance.

In a room at that synagogue, 10 tons of matzah had just arrived from the Ukraine. Bureaucratic red tape had held up the shipment until now.

On the side of each box was printed a message that read: Baked by the Jews of Kiev in Ukraine for the Jews in Argentina, with a line in Hebrew meaning all Jews are responsible for one another.

For many on the trip, that box of matzah — late as it was — encapsulated the message of the UJC mission.

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