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Jewish Journal

Forum Tries to Help Argentine Jews

As Argentina experiences an economic breakdown, many Jews facing poverty decide to leave.

by Florencia Arbiser

December 27, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Many in the Argentine Jewish community are facing poverty as the country experiences an economic breakdown. Photo by Sharon Faulkner/JDC

Many in the Argentine Jewish community are facing poverty as the country experiences an economic breakdown. Photo by Sharon Faulkner/JDC

Like the more than 2 million Jews who came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century in search of the American dream, thousands went further south -- to Argentina -- hoping to find a brighter future.

Now, with Argentina in the throes of a wrenching political and economic crisis, the immigrants' descendants find their dreams shattered.

Israel has responded with a plan to encourage immigration to the Jewish state, and the first wave of Argentine emigration since the crisis arose arrived this week: Sixty-three Argentines were welcomed by Jewish Agency for Israel officials and relatives at

Ben-Gurion Airport and were taken to absorption centers around the country.

The Israeli government this week approved a package of special benefits for new immigrants from Argentina. However, it is not clear how many of the 220,000 Jews in Argentina -- 50,000 of whom live below the poverty level -- will take advantage of the incentives.

Ironically, a major conference on Jewish poverty concluded in Argentina just days before Argentine President Fernando de la Rua resigned amid charges of a corrupt government and a collapsing economy.

Caretaker President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa took over Dec. 23, after several days of rioting and civil unrest. A March special election is scheduled.

The conference earlier this month, "Confronting Poverty: Solutions, Experiences and Projects," was organized by the Latin American Jewish Congress, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Tzedaka Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Several Jewish organizations are assisting families in economic need, but resources are limited, aid workers reported.

Most of the families seeking assistance are considered "new poor," people who used to belong to the middle class but could not survive the economic and political policies the government implemented in the 1990s.

The policies -- while they led to some short-term gains -- had negative longer-term effects. Many middle-class Argentines lost their jobs. Shops were forced to close; debts led to auctioning off of houses. Small businessmen, small industrialists, state employees, professionals, all were affected.

"Members of the Jewish community are the test case of these policies, as they were on the front line of these politics and measures" because they are disproportionately represented in the middle class, said Bernardo Kliksberg, head of the Inter-American Initiative for Social Capital, Ethics and Development at the Inter-American Development Bank.

"In the 1990s, 7 million middle-class Argentines became poor," Kliksberg said, adding that only 25 percent of today's Argentina is middle class, compared to 53 percent in 1960.

According to Kliksberg, 300 Jewish families now live in shantytowns, while another 1,700 live crowded into small rooming houses.

At the unemployment office of the AMIA community center -- the most important in the country for the Jewish community -- the situation is changing dramatically, aid workers said. AMIA has received 500 work applications a month in 2001, compared to 1,000 for all of 2000.

Approximately 70 percent of the applications are from the younger generation, according to Kliksberg.

"The situation is alarming -- in the last two years, social assistance grew from 4,000 cases to 20,000," Kliksberg said.

Tzedaka, a Jewish organization dedicated to social assistance, estimated that it will assist 3,553 families this year, with another 80 families on a waiting list.

AMIA is helping 1,500 families this year, said Elida Kisluk, director of AMIA's social action department.

The JDC and Chabad-Lubavitch also are helping with special programs.

The organizations provide credit for building or repairing houses, paying rent, buying food and medicine and obtaining psychological assistance, as well as grants for clubs, schools and recreational and cultural events.

However, that often is not enough, which is leading many Argentine Jews to consider emigration. So far this year, about 1,500 Argentine Jews have immigrated to Israel, a 30 percent increase over 2000. Jewish Agency for Israel officials estimated that the number may double in 2002, depending on the situation in Argentina.

Meeting in emergency session on Dec. 23, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Sallai Meridor, head of the Jewish Agency, decided to offer Argentine immigrants a package of special benefits, valid for the next year.

Each immigrant family will receive up to $20,000 for purchasing an apartment. Two-thirds of the sum will be given as a loan; the rest will be a grant. In addition, each family will receive a $2,500 relocation grant, plus the regular benefits new immigrants normally receive.

Susana and Ricardo Schatz, far from achieving the dreams that they and many Argentine Jews once had, hope Israel will provide them with new opportunities.

The 1980s were good years for the Schatzes, who are in their 40s. They ran their own clothing business and employed a small staff. They traveled around Argentina and to Brazil. After years of expensive medical treatments, they were able to have children.

At the beginning of the 1990s, however, their business went into the red. They lost clients because of competition with bigger shops. They took on more debt until they had to close the business. When their mortgage payments became too high, they lost the property at auction.

They moved in with family members and now sell manufactured goods to retail shops. However, the factories they work for are behind on paying them. As a result, the Schatzes have had to pawn whatever jewelry they have. Their children go to Jewish schools on grants.

With almost no income, the Schatzes cannot accept a grant to start renting an apartment, because they would be unable to make subsequent payments. Yet they rejected the food box Tzedaka offered.

"We know we are poor from here," Susana Schatz said, putting her hand on her pocket. "But we couldn't accept a donation."

Other families opt to move elsewhere, like the United States or Canada.

Cynthia and Javier Szkop, both in their mid-30s, are one of many families with children at the Jewish Emanul-El School that have decided to leave Argentina.

Cynthia Szkop trained as a kindergarten teacher and her husband has a degree in computers. She was laid off in March from a Jewish school, along with 100 other employees, and Javier Szkop believes he does not have good professional opportunities in Argentina.

"We are tired of arguing between us at the end of every month because we don't know how to do magic and pay the bills," Cynthia Szkop said. "We could send our kids to a worse school, but we don't want to reduce our standards for a good Jewish education."

When their papers are ready, the Szkops are planning to move to Canada.

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