Prayer and spirituality were the themes of a retreat attended by representatives of synagogues throughout Westchester one Sunday last month. But current events soon became the topic du jour.
Over lunch Susan Stern, co-chair of the Argentina Task Force of UJA-Federation, described her recent visit to the South American country. She talked about the increasing unemployment and poverty in the Argentine Jewish community.
Unprompted, the nearly 500 people at the Harrison JCC passed around a cardboard box, raising $1,500 in cash for UJA-Federation, earmarked for Argentine Jews.
“It wasn’t a pitch” for funds, Stern said. “The retreat had nothing to do with Argentina.” But, she says, the participants in the Synagogue 2000 program realized that “part of creating caring communities is tikkun olam [repairing the world].”
Today, in the Jewish part of the world, that means Argentina.
A decade after the Soviet Union became the former Soviet Union and an emergency airlift brought Ethiopia’s remaining Jews to safety Israel, Argentina’s 200,000-member Jewish community, the seventh largest in the world, now ranks as an endangered community.
Two months after a political and financial collapse brought rioting and looting in Buenos Aires, the country’s deteriorating economy, which threatens the size and viability of Argentine Jewry, has become a top priority of American Jews.
“People are quite interested in it,” Stern said.
UJA-Federation last week announced an emergency grant of $4.72 million to support Argentine Jewry — $4 million to the Jewish Agency, which coordinates immigration to Israel; and $722,000 to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas arm of the organized American Jewish community.
“When we met with [Israeli] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon two weeks ago, I expressed New York’s readiness to fulfill our responsibility of saving Jews in danger and helping those who choose to remain,” said Larry Zicklin, UJA-Federation president. “The situation in Argentina is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity. We are pleased to partner with [the Jewish Agency] to facilitate so many ‘new beginnings’ for the Argentineans who have decided to make aliyah, and we are working with JDC to help those who remain get back on their feet and achieve self-sufficiency.”
Following a three-day visit to Argentina last week of leaders from the JDC and United Jewish Communities, the UJC agreed to recommend that local federations increase their contribution to the Joint’s activities this year in Argentina from $1 million to $6 million. While UJC, the umbrella organization of individual Jewish federations, is not mounting a separate fund-raising campaign for Argentine Jewry, it is asking local federations to request money beyond that raised in the annual campaigns.
“Our preliminary indications are that federations are prepared to pay their fair share,” said Steve Schwager, JDC associate executive vice president.
And several synagogues in the United States and Canada are launching twinning programs with cash-strapped congregations in Argentina.
“The gravity of the situation can only be understood when one visits” Argentina, said Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president of JDC who was part of last week’s mission. The Jewish community’s needs are “enormous … urgent,” he said.
“The Jewish community is hit hard — 80 percent of the Jews were members of the middle class. Small business owners, merchants, professionals, they lost their jobs … ran out of money, and then their savings evaporated in the recent banking meltdown,” Shaviv said. “Without money, some people are simply hungry. They are the ‘sudden poor.’ ”
“Now we need the help of the American Jews,” said Rabbi Daniel Goldman, whose Comunidad Bet El in Buenos Aires began a series of assistance programs — including a soup kitchen, food factory, pharmacy and employment bureau — for needy Argentine Jews eight years ago.
Rabbi Goldman, in a telephone interview Tuesday with The Jewish Week, praised the increasing financial support provided in recent months by American Jewry, but said “this is not enough. We need more help. We need money to sustain our synagogues, our schools, our community.”
Without the American aid, the rabbi said, “it will be difficult” to sustain Jewish life in Argentina.
It is summer there now. When the school year begins in a few months, it is uncertain how many Jewish families will be able to afford tuition to enroll their children in the country’s extensive system of Jewish day schools.
Congregation Bnai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side has increased its fund raising for a twinning project it established two months ago with Comunidad Bet El, said Rabbi Rolando Matalon, an Argentine native. Some of the funds will go to the Buenos Aires synagogue’s religious school, he said. “It’s uncertain how many people will require [scholarship aid]. The teachers are uncertain if they will have jobs.”
Bnai Jeshurun is encouraging other synagogues to adopt similar twinning programs. Two members — Rabbi Hillel Friedman and his sister Naomi Meyer, widow of the congregation’s late spiritual leader Rabbi Marshall Meyer — described the idea to rabbis attending the recent convention in Washington of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “A lot of them are very interested,” Mrs. Meyer says.
Rabbi Adam Mintz of Lincoln Square Synagogue was approached by Rabbi Friedman and agreed to start a twinning project. “I’m very committed to doing it,” Rabbi Mintz said. “It’s not [only] a funding issue. It’s an issue of giving encouragement to the Argentine Jewish community.”
Members of Bnai Jeshurun are producing a book of personal recipes and vignettes, to be ready by Passover, with the profits going to Rabbi Goldman’s congregation, Rabbi Matalon said.
The North American Boards of Rabbis will twin 40 synagogues in the U.S. and Canada with a like number of Argentine congregations that sponsor soup kitchens, said Rabbi Marc Schneier, NABOR president.
The project, coordinated with the World Jewish Congress, is geared around Passover, when holiday expenses are an annual drain on the budget even of employed families, says Rabbi Schneier, who will lead a NABOR-WJC delegation to Buenos Aires next month.
“This is very reminiscent of the struggle for Soviet Jewry,” a major international Jewish issue a generation ago, the rabbi said. “The act of twinning strengthens the spiritual and emotional bonds between our Jewish communities. It reminds us that not only do we share a common faith, but we share a common fate.”