The plight of Argentine Jews hammered by the collapse of their country's economy was forcefully brought home to a contingent of Los Angeles Jews this month.
Twenty-two young leaders active at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles joined the United Jewish Communities (UJC)/Ben Gurion Society (BGS) National Young Leadership Mission Oct. 31-Nov. 6.
Standing on the patio of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (AMIA) center in the city's La Paternal neighborhood, Brian Weisberg talked with Graciela Estrin, who had come to the center for help. When Weisberg asked Estrin what had brought her there, the woman tearfully revealed her story.
The 43-year-old Estrin explained that she had been unemployed since December 2001, and her husband, a furniture salesman, only earns 500 pesos a month -- roughly $140. The eldest of her three children, she continued, had just quit the university so that the family could buy food.
"This was too much to keep standing on our own," said Estrin, who added that she had only come to the center after many weeks of deliberation.
Estrin's story is one of only many that the 166 UJC/BGS members heard on the mission. The group visited Argentina to get a first-hand look at the situation. According to officials, thousands of Argentine Jews are being assisted by a Jewish welfare network.
The AMIA center, which opened in August to help Jews in the area who were living near the poverty level, is part of the welfare program. About 550 families receive food vouchers, medicine, clothing and subsidies at the facility, which is supported by AMIA and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
Monica Cullucar, a JDC staffer in Buenos Aires, used to work with Paula Szwarc at the same Jewish high school. Cullucar's former colleague has been hit hard by the economic crisis.
"Now I teach only four hours a week of classes in a local private and prestigious university," said Szwarc, a former Fullbright Scholar who taught English at international companies. "Many companies became smaller and quit training their staff."
"I used to earn $1,300 a month," said the 32-year-old divorcee, who has a 9-year-old son. "Now I'm getting $70."
Silvana Bloch, a social worker, said of Szwarc, "She does not talk about her needs, but they are urgent."
One of the mission members, Diana Fiedotin, who represents Los Angeles on the United Jewish Communities' (UJC) National Task Force on Argentina, is the daughter of an Argentine couple.
Fiedotin is involved in the Lifeline to Argentina project, which matches Jewish American families with Jewish Argentine families. The project provides the Argentines with a year's worth of food vouchers, medicines and day school or Jewish Agency programs. The local Tzedaka Foundation in Buenos Aires and a JDC partner coordinates the program in Argentina.
"The program started last Yom Kippur and has already gathered $40,000," Fiedotin said.
Michele Sackheim, national co-chair of the UJC/BGS mission and the sponsor of a family, said visiting the Argentine Jews was like looking in a mirror. She said the Argentines were educated, well-traveled -- "we can relate [to them]."
"It is so emotional because we can all see ourselves in the Argentine community," Sackheim said. "But you need to look beneath to really know that something is happening, and that is why the Argentine story is so compelling."
Sackheim related her visit to the family she sponsors. She said the family's situation was typical of what many Argentine Jews are experiencing.
"The [husband] used to sell medical materials," she said. "They had a good standard of living. They bought their own apartment, and they even showed me the receipts of contributions they made to the Jewish community when they were prosperous."
"Now," Sackheim related tearfully, "the couple is looking for jobs. Their two kids have a scholarship in a Jewish school. This is so emotional."
Daniel Yoffe, executive director of the Tzedaka Foundation, told the mission, "Argentine Jews lost their dignity. They are like us, but they suddenly became poor."
Despite the desperate economic situation, Yoffe said, Argentine Jews remain involved in their community to the best of their abilities. He said they have contributed 3.8 million pesos -- roughly $1.07 million -- this year and, "we have just gotten 800 new donors."
Fiedotin, who has made three trips to Argentina this year, has seen the Argentine Jews' reactions change as the crisis continues. In February, she said, there was panic. In August, there was resignation to the situation and no hope.
On the latest trip, Fiedotin said Argentine Jews have accepted "their new reality and are adjusting to being lower-middle class, having middle-class values and lower-class living standards."
Throughout the trip, the BGS mission members encountered recipients of social assistance programs who thanked them for the help that the Jewish community has received.
"It makes me uncomfortable to be thanked," Sackheim said. "The whole Jewish world is like my family. I know they would have done the same for us."
The Jewish Federation's Jews in Crisis Fund is still accepting donations for the Jews of Argentina. For more information, contact (323) 761-8200.
Plans for Future Aid
The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)'s Task Force on Argentina says that Argentina's Jewish community is restructuring itself, cutting costs and raising money, but the country deteriorated even more dramatically in recent months. JAFI is hoping to come up with $44 million to meet that challenge. Steve Hoffman, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities (the umbrella organization over JAFI, JDC and the federations) believes another 6,000 Argentine Jews will make aliyah in 2003 if JAFI can provide special aliyah/absorption funding as they did in 2002. Part of the $44 million will go to aliyah and absorption, welfare relief in Argentina, and funding to keep poor children in the Jewish school system. "Without special funding, thousands will soon drop out and be lost," Hoffman wrote in a recent newsletter.