For Karen Shapira, the United Jewish Communities's fact-finding tour to Argentina last week made a deep impression.
"Two weeks ago, I knew the figures [of Argentina's economic crisis]," she said.
"But to be here, to see the effects of the crisis on the middle class, [is something else]," said Shapira, chair of the Overseas Pillar of the United Jewish Committee (UJC), the umbrella for the North American Jewish federation movement.
Shapira, who also co-chairs a special UJC task force on Argentina, was one of a group of UJC leaders who traveled to Buenos Aires last week to evaluate the needs of the country's Jews during Argentina's continuing economic collapse.
Before the mission was over, UJC leaders in North America, in a conference call with mission delegates, had approved some $5 million in emergency aid for food, shelter and medicine.
The funds, to be distributed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), are expected to come from local federations.
Steven Schwager, chief operating officer of the JDC, welcomed the development, and said the JDC will continue to look for additional funds to meet the estimated $8.7 million Argentine Jews will need in 2002.
UJC still must determine its overall budget for the Argentine emergency, taking into account the increasing needs of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is helping to fund the emigration and absorption of Argentine Jews to Israel.
Argentina was a major focus at this week's meeting in Israel of the Jewish Agency's Board of Governors.
While in Buenos Aires, the UJC contingent met with local Jewish professionals who coordinate welfare programs, visited centers focused on helping Jews immigrate to Israel and met with religious and other community leaders.
They also met with ordinary Jews, most whom belonging to middle- or former middle-class families in a Jewish community of about 200,000 people. These people shared with the UJC visitors their stories and needs.
Though Shapira had read about the Argentine situation, she emphasized that the people she met in welfare centers were not the kind of people she had imagined in such a situation -- educated, hard-working members of the middle class.
"For me, one of the really important things here is to meet Jewish leadership, to see how they organize," Shapira said.
She also noticed how much the leaders used phrases like "reengineering" and "cooperation" in describing their efforts to reorganize to help a community that has difficulty paying membership fees and dues to Jewish institutions.
Through the windows of the group's van, Shapira saw could see people begging and shops closed as a result of the economic crisis. Beyond that, however, the streets looked normal.
Under the surface, however, the situation is anything but normal.
The current crisis has closed banks and decimated small business people, including many Jews.
For Richard Bernstein, the co-chair of the UJC's Argentine Response Task Force, one of the most shocking discoveries was "how quickly things are happening. In a question of the last six weeks, there are parts of the Jewish community who started to have urgent needs," he said. "Some are uncertain about food and shelter for next week."
The UJC group also visited Emanu El Social Assistance Center, which works with the support of the JDC and Tzedaka, an Argentine Jewish social services organization.
At the assistance center, they talked to five formerly middle-class families who have become part of the "new poor."
Just meeting their basic needs -- food, medicine and shelter -- now is a struggle.
Schwager said meeting the five families made a deep impression on him.
"They were clearly middle class, and now they have nothing, they have no hope. It is so hard to imagine," he said. "I think this is an emergency situation. And Jews around the world need to know about it."
The group also visited Comedores Populares Israelitas Argentinos, an independent welfare institution that, with financial help from the JDC, provides kosher meals to approximately 90 people a day.
"There are more people willing to come for lunch, but we do not have the money to feed them," a spokesman said.
The JDC estimates that it will need to assist 21,000 Jews this year -- and, perhaps, for many years.
The delegation also met with Jews preparing to emigrate to Israel who were in the Jewish Agency office. The office is in the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building, the central address for Argentine Jewry.
According to the Jewish Agency, about 4,600 people have inquired about moving to Israel since the beginning of 2002. In January, 210 Argentine Jews arrived in Israel, another 330 are ready to depart in February and 500 more are expected in March.
Both Jews staying in Argentina and those leaving need help, Bernstein said.
After touring Comedores, the group was on its way to the Hebraica Jewish Institution, a social and cultural center, when a young student stopped them.
Apparently needing to vent his frustration, he told them about his lack of hope for the future.
During another part of the trip, in front of the AMIA building, a man was handing out pamphlets for Hebrew classes.
"Hebrew classes for emigrants for five pesos" -- approximately $2.50 -- "each hour," the low-quality, photocopied pamphlet read.
David Sarnat, the Jewish Agency's executive vice president, who was on the mission, picked it up.
"You will speak Hebrew in two weeks. Guaranteed,'' said the man, who apparently was looking for a way to survive the economic crisis.
At the same time, his classes also serve the needs of those Jews reacting to the economic collapse by moving to Israel.
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