Five months ago, Beatrice Ballageure was struggling to make ends meet as a single, 47-year-old Jewish woman living in the capital city of an economically depressed Argentina. She had lost her job several months earlier, but she owned her own apartment and had enough money in the bank to afford basic expenses. She had friends with jobs, and she knew she could rely on her family if real trouble ever came.
Then the bottom fell out of Argentina's economy.
The president announced that the country was defaulting on its public debt, the peso was devalued and immediately went into a free-fall, unemployment surged to 22 percent and the government froze all bank accounts, cutting off millions of Argentines from their life savings. In addition, food riots broke out, and the president, along with three of his successors, resigned.
Suddenly, Ballageure was out of options.
Last week, Ballageure found herself in a food line at Buenos Aires' Jewish community center, waiting for a handout of basic foodstuffs for Passover. Over the course of three months, her sister had moved to Israel, all but two of her friends had lost their jobs and the few pesos she had left in the bank had been frozen and was rapidly shrinking in value. On top of that, she needed food to eat for the holiday.
"I was middle class," said Ballageure, clutching her handbag in line at the Asociacian Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), Buenos Aires' central Jewish community facility. "Now I have no class."
Ballageure is just one of the tens of thousands of Jews -- and millions of Argentines -- who find themselves out of money and out of luck this Passover season. For Argentina's once-wealthy Jewish community, estimated at 250,000, the trappings of wealth remain, but the money is gone.
Unaccustomed to their sudden impoverishment, many of Argentina's new Jewish poor are too ashamed to ask for help. However, their community leaders are sounding the alarm, and U.S. Jews have begun to respond.
Earlier this month, Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, and Dr. Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), led a group of a dozen rabbis on a two-day mission to Buenos Aires to meet with Argentine Jewish leaders and figure out how to distribute approximately $100,000 in relief aid for the purchase of Passover food.
The funds were raised for Argentina's Jews by nearly 70 synagogues across North America, including several in the Los Angeles area: Sinai Temple, Temple Kol Tikvah, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Kehillat Israel, Adat Ari El, Valley Beth Shalom and Congregation Kol Ami.
"It's like [Manhattan's] Upper East Side suddenly went belly-up," said Schneier of the plight of Argentine Jewry. "They still have their nice clothes and expensive homes, but they suddenly have no money to buy food and can't make their monthly maintenance payments. It's unbelievable."
Bypassing the usual Jewish communal charity mechanisms, the group delivered the money directly to 32 synagogues in Argentina, many of which have had to open soup kitchens to feed their members. The checks were cashed at exchange centers rather than banks -- where withdrawals are severely restricted -- and the Argentine synagogues used the cash to buy food that was distributed to congregants and other needy Jews before the holiday.
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, spiritual leader of Woodland Hills' Temple Kol Tikvah, took part in the mission, and he brought checks from the seven Southern California synagogues.
The swift fundraising operation was a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of maot hitim, giving food to the poor for Passover, said Schneier, the group's president. "Usually we give maot hitim before Passover to poor Jews in New York," said Schneier, who is the rabbi of Hampton Synagogue in Long Island, N.Y. "But when we focused this year on the issue of maot hitim, we knew there was a community of deep financial need in Argentina."
Last month, the United Jewish Communities pledged $40 million in emergency aid for Argentine relief, $35 million of which is being allocated to aid Argentine aliyah and absorption in Israel, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency, and $5 million of which is being spent locally in Argentina, under the aegis of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Dr. Bernardo Kliksberg, president of the Human Development Commission of the Latin-American Jewish Congress, said Argentina's woes pose nothing less than a problem of "physical survival" for the country's Jews. "This community has no [financial] resources," he said in Buenos Aires. "There are 50,000 poor Jews in Argentina, and only 20,000 have the protection of the Jewish community. Today we have a problem of the survival of Jews and of the Argentine Jewish community."
"We came so that when we say in our homes on Passover behind closed doors, 'Whoever is hungry, let them come and eat,' we will not be lying," said Singer, explaining the timing of the rabbis' trip.
"It's only a beginning," Singer said. "We shall return."