Perhaps it was because of the seemingly endless catastrophes that hit the Jewish world this past year, but the atmosphere at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance for Super Sunday was unusually serious. Replacing the normal, celebratory air was a determination to get the job done. The gymnasium full of phone banks hummed with intensity as the volunteers focused on getting in as many calls and donations as possible, resulting in about $1.5 million raised from the Valley Alliance.
Lay leader Marcy Howard said it was the biggest turnout she has ever seen at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills on Super Sunday.
"We have been focusing our planning on how Sept. 11, the crisis with the Jewish Community Centers [JCCs] and what is happening in Argentina will affect the day," said Howard, who along with Thierry Benchetrit co-chaired the Valley Alliance's part in the event. "I think that's why we're getting the turnout we have; people care, and today's the day they get to show it."
While there is always a litany of needs in the Los Angeles Jewish community presented on Super Sunday, this year's focus on the crisis in Argentina was clear (see full story, page 25). Prior to the first call for donations, which was made by West Valley JCC President Tsilah Burman, a group of Federation leaders gathered in the office of Valley Alliance Director Jack Mayer, and placed a call to Rabbi Daniel Goldman of Bet El Community Synagogue of Buenos Aires.
"We are responsible one to the other, like it's written in the Talmud. And I think that this is the time to help us," said Goldman, whose statement was recorded and played back later for groups of Super Sunday volunteers. "I hope that in a couple of months, we will be better, and we alone could do our own homework. But now, it's the time to help."
The call to Goldman was followed by another call to Argentina, this time to Carlos Fuks, vice president for planning with the charitable organization Fundación Tzedaka, who thanked The Federation for all its support. He said he could not underscore enough the dire needs of the Argentine Jewish community, saying they would likely need $30 million in aid to help an anticipated 50,000 people who were expected to be living at or below the poverty line by year's end.
"We are working under a state of emergency," Fuks said. "The unemployment level is at 22 percent and that does not include people who are under-employed, which is about another 20 percent."
Asked about the interest in aliyah, Fuks said it is being discussed but is not an option for everyone.
"Apart from the language problem, many people have relatives in Argentina who cannot leave, or children with some sort of [disability] so it is not easy to leave," he said.
Diana Fiedotin, a member of the United Jewish Communities' Argentine Response Task Force, has been working with The Federation as a whole and the Valley Alliance to solidify support for the Argentine crisis. Fiedotin's parents emigrated from Argentina in 1961 and while she was raised in Atlanta she visited her parents' homeland frequently as a child and has made an annual trip there since 1982. She went on her usual visit in September 2001 and then again in February of this year to attend a cousin's wedding. She said the difference in the country between last fall and now is astounding.
"The number of storefronts with 'Closed' and 'For Sale' signs is staggering," she said. "Even in the Buenos Aires version of Beverly Hills, where one would think they would be immune to all this, the stores are empty. There's simply no one left to buy."
Fiedotin confirmed that many people talk about either immigrating to Spain or Costa Rica or making aliyah, but the latter is complicated by financial and security concerns along with the high rate of intermarriage in the Argentine Jewish community.
"Part of the problem with aliyah is, if your whole worth is in your apartment and you can't sell it, there's no money to emigrate," she said. "For some people with children of military age, they wonder what kind of future their child could have in Israel. Also, many people are intermarried, so do you go to Israel with your Catholic wife? There are all kinds of factors and just because everybody is talking about it doesn't mean they're going to do it. That's why it's important for the Jewish community there and here to raise money for both sides: to be able to help people emigrate and also to help people who remain behind."
Fiedotin was just one of many from the Argentine community in Los Angeles who volunteered Sunday. Herberto Svidler and his brother, Elbio, were part of a group of 20 from B'nai B'rith who came "to help in any way we can." The two men emigrated from Argentina to the United States 15 years ago and are now American citizens. Currently they are sponsoring their other brother, Cesar, and his family as well as their mother to join them here in California.
"They're in a very bad situation. My brother is a structural engineer and his wife is an architect but they have no jobs and cannot sell their house," Svidler explained. "Nobody can imagine what it's like. When my other brother and I moved here with our families we were 11 people but at that time we could manage; now people have no means of support."
By day's end, the Valley Alliance had received 4,500 pledges. Alliance spokesperson Deborah Dragon said she was unsure how much of the money donated was earmarked for Argentina.
"Many of the people called mentioned Argentina or were compelled to give or increase their gift when they found out we were helping Argentina but most made their gift to the general [United Jewish Fund] campaign," she said.