The last time Rabbi Daniel Goldman, spiritual leader of the largest synagogue in Argentina, came to New York, he spoke at a Congregation B’nai Jeshurun shabbaton, describing the deteriorating economic situation of Argentine Jewry.
That was in early December, two weeks before Argentina’s economy collapsed into a black hole of unemployment and looting.
This weekend Rabbi Goldman returns to B’nai Jeshurun. And, said Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, the synagogue’s Argentina-born senior rabbi, "the situation is even worse."
The financial crisis in Argentina has led B’nai Jeshurun, which has spearheaded activism for the country’s Jewish community because of the Argentine roots of the synagogue’s spiritual leaders, to start a major outreach effort to rabbinic leaders and members of New York’s wider Jewish community.
At a meeting this week with rabbis from Upper West Side congregations, Rabbi Goldman’s message about his country’s once-prosperous Jewish community was bleak: it cannot support itself for the near future without the help of overseas Jews.
He will bring that same grim forecast to a B’nai Jeshurun shabbaton this weekend and a public forum Monday at 7:30 p.m.
Argentine Jewry, largely middle class, was disproportionately hurt by the government’s decade of disastrous economic policies and corruption, which resulted in the current rounds of inflation, devaluation and immigration. The official unemployment rate is 35 percent and rising; at least one-fourth of the country’s 200,000-member Jewish community now lives below the poverty level.
"I grew up there," said Rabbi Bronstein, who was an active member of Rabbi Goldman’s Comunidad Bet El synagogue. That congregation was founded by the late Rabbi Marshall Meyer, who served at B’nai Jeshurun after leaving Buenos Aires.
Many people in the Jewish community don’t have any money left, Rabbi Bronstein said.
"People are basically eating from trash cans. People are becoming homeless," he said. "Medicine is not available. The day schools are closing. The country I grew up in (full of life, full of Jewish life) doesn’t exist anymore."
Rabbi Goldman’s visit here is sponsored by B’nai Jeshurun’s Latin American Committee, which focuses on economic help for Jews in Argentina and the restoration of Cuba’s small Jewish community.
"We have a responsibility to all of Latin America because Marshall Meyer started the seminary," said Karen Radkowsky, co-chair of the Latin American Committee. The Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano is the branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Buenos Aires that trains rabbis who serve throughout the region.
"There’s just a natural link between BJ and the Latin American community," Radkowsky said. In addition to Rabbi Bronstein, the congregation’s other senior rabbi, Rolando Matalon, and its cantor, Ari Priven, are from Argentina.
"People know to call BJ when [they have a question] connected with Argentina," Radkowsky said. For information, contact the committee at (212) 787-7600, Ext. 371.
The current crisis in Israel has overshadowed the problems of Argentine Jewry, said Miriam Moussatche-Wechsler, co-chair of the Latin American Committee. "I don’t think the Jewish community of the United States is aware of it."
The synagogue’s Latin American Committee last year established a twinning program with Comunidad Bet El, raising $100,000 for the Bet El soup kitchen and other humanitarian programs.
"It’s not enough" to help all the people who turn to Bet El for support, Rabbi Bronstein said.
The B’nai Jeshurun committee, which coordinates its work with UJA-Federation’s Task Force on Argentine Relief and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has also published a guide to "Resettlement Opportunities in Israel, Europe and the United States," set up a Web site (groups.yahoo.com/group/ BJLatinAmerica) with information about its activities, and has encouraged other local Jewish institutions (synagogues, schools, Jewish community centers) to establish similar twinning programs.
"There’s no reason every shul in Argentina can’t be twinned with," Rabbi Bronstein said.
B’nai Jeshurun is devoting its immediate attention to the physical needs of Argentine Jewry, he says. "Phase one is to help people survive," he said.
The focus then will turn to immigration. Despite predictions of the Jewish community leaving en masse, mostly to Israel, no more than an estimated 10,000 have gone so far. The rest should go, eventually, Rabbi Bronstein says.
"Phase two is to encourage people to leave," he said. "There is no future there."