Buenos Aires — In the good years, Marcela would begin her Passover shopping a few weeks before the seders. The usual matzah and wine and fish, new clothing for her two children, some coins to be hidden around the family’s apartment for the afikoman search. “Everything,” she said.
This year, nothing. No clothes, no coins.
And this was her Pesach shopping: She carried a 25-pound cardboard carton filled with boxes of matzahs and bottles of wine and packages of ground beef and chicken — everything she needs for the holiday — on the bus this week from the Bais Chabad humanitarian center, a Lubavitch synagogue-social welfare building on a downtown sidestreet, to her home 25 blocks away.
The good years ended for Marcela two years ago, when she lost her job as a sales clerk, and last November, when her architect husband became unemployed.
“My situation is typical of most middle-class families” in Argentina, whose economy has been in a freefall since December, says Marcela, 43. Sitting in a Bais Chabad office, a black windbreaker matching her dark hair, she declines to give her last name.
image3goeshere Like many members of Argentina’s mostly middle-class Jewish community, which numbers about 200,000, she faces a Passover with no money and no prospects. The holiday food she brought home was free, donated by Chabad, which is among several local Jewish organizations that are offering a variety of services to the once-affluent Jewish community.
“The problem is not Passover,” Marcela says through an interpreter, her eyes filling with tears. “The problem is every day.”
How does she put unleavened bread — or in the case of next week, matzah — on the table?
“There is a growing need,” says Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, who led a 10-member delegation on a two-day mission here this week to establish twinning programs with 29 Argentine synagogues that have established soup kitchens and similar food distribution programs in the last few months.
“I’ve traveled around the world. This is the first time I’ve encountered a case of financial persecution” — a severe financial downturn in a Jewish community without accompanying social problems like discrimination or anti-Semitism, Rabbi Schneier says.
The NABOR rabbis, representing 50 synagogues around the United States and Canada; visited another Jewish food program here, attended a community prayer rally; met leaders of the country’s major Jewish communal organizations; observed a session of the trial of 20 police officers accused in the 1995 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community building; heard some students practice Passover songs at a Jewish day school; and spent an hour with Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde at the president’s summer home.
Funds for the soup kitchens, totaling about $100,000 so far, will be distributed by NABOR through the Latin American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Schneier says of the program co-sponsored by the World Jewish Congress.
“This is our responsibility. We wanted to see firsthand the dire situation,” he says. “We wanted to demonstrate our solidarity with our co-religionists in Argentina.”
“Twinning,” setting up ongoing relationships between individual Argentine congregations and those in North America, “is a much more personal way of identifying, than some overall campaign. This must become a priority for the Jewish community. This is a demonstration of the fulfillment of the mitzvah of maot chitim,” literally money for wheat, an annual campaign that enables indigent Jews to buy Passover necessities.
The RAVSAK Jewish Community Day School Network of North America announced its own twinning project with Argentine Jewry last week. Called “Padrinazgo Escolar” (educational standardization), it will involve some four dozen schools in the United States and Canada, which will contribute at least $1,800 to an adopted school in Argentina, promoting cultural dialogues and student exchanges at each other´s institutions. The first participants are the Joesph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, N.J., and the Colegio Rabino Jose Caro of Buenos Aires.
Other U.S.-based Jewish organizations that have started new relief efforts on behalf of Argentina’s Jewish community are B’nai B’rith International, which sent nearly two tons of medical supplies to coincide with a leadership mission here earlier this month (the pharmaceutical products were to be distributed to the general public as well), and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which has allocated more than a $500,000 to needy Holocaust survivors.
This assistance supplements the existing assistance activities sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish community’s needs, which have grown constantly since the national unemployment rate climbed over 20 percent, are the highest at Passover, with the higher costs of holiday food, says Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, Chabad national director in Argentina.
Thousands of families require subsidies or outright cash donations to get matzah and wine and the other yom tov staples, Rabbi Grunblatt says. “I’m talking about the basics. I’m subsidizing $35,000 in matzah. If we wouldn’t distribute matzah, [many Jews] would have matzah only for the seders.”
And thousands of Argentine Jews, traditional and secular, unable to make their own seders, will attend community seders sponsored by Chabad’s 22 national outreach centers and other synagogues and Jewish organizations.
“People who last year paid 15 pesos” — $15 at the 2001 exchange rate — “this year can not pay 10 pesos,” about $4, the rabbi says.
“The people are not in the mood” to celebrate, Rabbi Grunblatt says. “I think most of the people are mentally enslaved by the situation. We have to talk to the people about bitachon, about confidence in Hashem.”
Rabbi Grunblatt, who attended a meeting with the visiting rabbis here this week, calls the financial assistance of North American Jewry “very important.”
“The constant refrain is ‘We need help,’ ” Rabbi Schneier says. “This is a crisis of unparalleled proportions — a phenomenon in Jewish history.”
“Passover is the time when we pray for our liberation. We must remember the Argentine Jewish community this Passover season,” he says.
Every year, at Rabbi Schneier’s own seder, he dedicates a “Fifth Cup” — traditionally named for the prophet Elijah — to an endangered Jewish community. Next week, the rabbi says, “I’ll recall Argentine Jewry.”
And Marcela, as usual, will attend her in-laws’ seders.
Her family received some financial assistance from relatives for a few years. A few months ago, when Argentina’s economy crashed, at the time of presidential resignations and street riots, the money ran out.
So she turned to Bais Chabad.
She comes, sometimes walking to save busfare, to the modest, four-story Chabad building once a month to pick up food packages. She volunteers there these days, answering the phone and passing out food to other newly poor Jews, whenever called.
“I wasn’t used to going to a place to get help,” she says, again teary. “I was used to helping others.”
In past years, she says, she didn´t count how much money she spent on Passover goods.
This year, “we can buy nothing.”
“Very sad,” she says. “You don’t know what´s going to happen tomorrow.”
Is her family considering aliyah, like the estimated 5,000 Argentine Jews who will immigrate to Israel this year?
No. She’s interested in Israel, but the constant terror attacks have scared her off. “I’m scared.”
Instead, she’s looking north. If conditions don´t improve here soon, she´d like to take her family to the United States. Maybe Florida.
Next year in Miami?
Marcela nods her head. “Si,” she says.
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