February 27, 2003
It's a balmy night as we join those filing into the basement social hall of the venerable Libertad Synagogue in the heart of downtown Buenos Aires. It resembles any Friday night service crowd anywhere in the United States, except that it's standing-room only. An elderly man sings Yiddish songs in a still-strong tenor followed by a young duo on saxophone and clarinet playing selections from "Fiddler on the Roof."
The crowd applauds, while sipping tiny paper cups of wine. This is what they've come for. This and the food -- especially the food. Not that it's anything to write home about. The meal is rice stuffed tomato, and dry gefilte fish, served tureen style. Dessert -- ice cream straight from the carton -- is simple in the extreme. But there are few leftovers. When you're hungry it all tastes good. And these people are hungry. The catastrophe that ravaged Argentina in December 2001 -- the peso was devalued to a third of a dollar and all savings were frozen -- hit the middle class particularly hard. Since most of the 200,000 Argentine Jews are part of that class, they are many among the suffering.
These are the people Rabbi Sergio Bergman is entertaining at the Shabbat dinner at the Libertad Synagogue. The slim, 40-year-old rabbi looks exhausted. His well-tailored suit hangs hauntingly on his slender frame. His eyes are bloodshot. He's too busy trying to inspire his guests to partake of the spirit of Shabbat to touch a bite of his dinner.
He parades between the tables singing familiar Ashkenazi melodies. He softly cajoles the congregation to get involved in the political protests against the government's inaction and corruption in the face of human suffering, and to wear the colors of the Argentine flag in their lapel, as he does. He tells us that he is flying in the face of Argentine culture and tradition. Argentina, he explains, does not have a culture of philanthropy and consequently neither do its Jews.
"We need to teach our people to give money," he explained sadly. "In this society you take, you don't give. We need to teach our politicians to be mensches, and not to destroy this country because it's a country with plenty of blessings and plenty of resources. The Argentine people are the problem -- our culture, our way of life." During our two weeks in Argentina we heard the same story repeatedly. Populist governments from Peron on had corrupted the people by giving them handouts rather than teaching them to farm the rich land and fend for themselves.
"We were all immigrants," said Bergman, whose grandparents came from Poland. "But we have lost the values of the immigrant culture -- the values of effort and work and sacrifice to make a future."
As we talked to people from all around the country, a consistent picture emerged. The Jewish community in Argentina was one of the wealthiest and most cultured in the world. No more. "It's as bad as America was in the Great Depression," said Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
The new Jewish poor include professionals, business men, shop and factory owners who can no longer get business loans, and can't afford to import the parts they need to carry on their businesses. Students have had to drop out of school and college to try and search for non-existent jobs to help their families. Unemployment is more than 25 percent. While the old are struggling to eat, the young are leaving in droves.
While we were in Buenos Aires, Communidades, the newspaper of Argentina's Jewish community ran ads offering jobs and resettlement expenses to professionals who would like to relocate to Birmingham, England.
Devora, who is in her late 20s and works at AMIA Communidad Judia -- the building that was blown up in 1992 with 85 dead -- is leaving with her computer analyst husband for Winnipeg, Canada. The folks from Winnipeg flew them out for a month and promised them jobs and aid for housing. Jewish leaders tried to encourage them to make aliyah, but Devora turned that option down.
"Not because of the war," she hastened to explain. "Too aggressive, too loud, too rude. Canada is a civilized country where things workÂ -- they want us. They will help us. And our children, when we have them, will have a future."
But leaving comes at a considerable emotional cost. Argentines love their country with a visceral passion. They will stay until the bitter end because nowhere else measures up.
One woman who has visited her son in Los Angeles found the people there "cold and aloof. And all everybody does is work all the time," she complained.
Her husband agreed. "We love Buenos Aires, the gaiety of it, the smells, the life, the activity. We don't want to leave," he said.
Bergman, ever the optimist, sees in the crisis an opportunity. This determinedly secular community has always forged its collective identity through the Jewish social and sporting clubs that dot the city; synagogue membership was minuscule. That is now changing. For a start, they can no longer afford country club fees, and there is more.
"In the crisis, they come to the religious institutions to receive support and this is a new opportunity to involve them in Jewish life," the rabbi said. If the crisis continues he knows synagogue services will be standing-room only. It is a small comfort.
To help, contact Will Recant at the JDC at (212) 885-0839; or visit www.jdc.org. Donations marked "Argentine Relief Fund" can be sent to ARZA/World Union for Progressive Judaism, North American 633 Third Ave., New York, N.Y., 10017." Â
Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based freelance writer. Ivor Davis writes a column for The New York Times Syndicate.