Buenos Aires — At first glance, the once-thriving capital of Argentina looks as thriving as ever. The downtown commercial area, near the banks of the Rio de la Plata river, is filled with people. The shelves of the upscale shops are stocked with the latest goods. The city’s distinctive yellow-and-black taxis cruise the streets.
But at second glance …
Many of the people are headed to — or trying to avoid — the pot-banging, traffic-blocking demonstrations that have become part of the Buenos Aires scene since the government du jour went bankrupt in December. “There are demonstrations against the president, against every politician,” says one Argentina native.
The shops are empty of customers. No one has money for luxuries.
So are the cabs. Hundreds of out-of-work workers have used their severance pay to buy taxi medallions in recent months, so the drivers ride around at turtle-like speed looking for the rare fare, keeping their lights off after dark to save money.
Now head west, along the grid of avenues that fan out from the river.
At the Chabad soup kitchen in the Flores neighborhood, 56-year-old Norma Kanter sits at a window-side table with her son Claud, sipping on a lunchtime bowl of soup. “We come here every day,” she says. Divorced, an accountant for 18 years, she hasn’t worked for five. Breakfast, Kanter says, is a cup of tea at home; dinner, some coffee and a slice of bread.
image3goeshere “Sad, sad,” she says. “What will become of us?”
In his office at Comunidad Bet El synagogue in the Belgrano neighborhood, Rabbi Daniel Goldman tells some stories. Of the congregation’s former president, a one-time millionaire factory owner, who comes to the Bet El soup kitchen for meals. Of an architect, another once-affluent synagogue member, who “doesn’t have money to eat.” Of his daughter’s high school friend who met the rabbi for the first time the other day and declared, “I know you from the soup kitchen.”
“These stories are very usual in Buenos Aires,” Rabbi Goldman says.
Outside the Succat David kosher restaurant in the Once neighborhood, Ricardo Schusterman, a social worker at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Latin American office, starts counting the shuttered businesses, clothing and tchotchke stores, which line that block of Tucuman Street. He reaches 20. Then he counts again. “… 16, 17 — that’s how many were owned by Jews.”
Were owned by Jews.
That block, in the heart of Once (pronounced OWN-say), the largest Jewish neighborhood in a city whose Jewish population (175,000 according to the 2001 American Jewish Year Book) ranks as the 13th largest in the world, is a symbol of Argentine Jewry in early 2002.
Following a decade of disastrous economic policies and unchecked government corruption, the economy collapsed four months ago gutting the middle class. The official unemployment rate is 25 percent and rising. And Argentine Jewry, 80 percent of it middle class, is disproportionately suffering; an estimated one-quarter of Argentine Jews are living below the poverty line.
The signs are subtle. Fashionable people wearing last year’s clothes. People who borrow books instead of buy. People who simply don’t show up at restaurants or social clubs. People who know better than to ask “How are you doing?” because no one wants to give an honest answer.
“We used to be known as ‘the Paris of Latin America,’ ” says one native of B.A., as the locals call the capital. “Now we’re just another country.”
“We have not only the ‘structural poverty,’ ” sociologists’ term for the permanent underclass, “but a new kind of poverty,” which Argentines call the “suddenly poor,” says Nora Blaistein, director of social programs at the Tzedaka Foundation, an independent, 11-year-old organization that changed its focus from social-cultural activities to welfare work as the economy worsened.
“The new poor don’t know how to manage in this situation,” Rabbi Goldman says. “They don’t which are the doors to knock on.”
“It’s very difficult to realize what happened to us,” says Monica Cullucar, JDC program director and a trained sociologist. “You can find very nice restaurants and shopping malls.”
But Cullucar sees. And she hears about difficulties that have, in varying degrees, reached the Jewish community: drugs, crime, prostitution, beggars, family violence, divorces, postponed marriages, postponed children, depression, suicides, evictions, homelessness, canceled health insurance.
“They cannot even buy an aspirin,” Cullucar says. “Diabetics don’t have enough insulin.
“People who used to invite people to their homes four times a month, now do it once a month and they ask, ‘Can you bring a salad?’ ” she says. “The conversations are completely different, in buses, in their homes. Now people are talking about ‘Do you have a job? Do you have somewhere to live?’ Most of them are speaking about immigration.”
‘Down The Road’
Though aliyah is increasing, from about 1,500 olim a year to 5,000 or 6,000 this year, and although the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is helping Jews who wish to settle in other Western countries, talk of an en masse airlift to Israel is exaggerated, community leaders say, and most of Argentina’s Jewish community, at 200,000 the seventh-largest in the world, is likely to remain.
The consensus: 20,000 Argentine Jews at most will leave during the next several years.
“I don’t think the ship will sink, but it will be much smaller,” says Pablo Wichtel, a customer service agent and member of the Einstein Virtual Campus, an on-line project that assists small businesses. “There won’t be room for all of us.”
Steve Schwager, chief operating officer of the JDC, says 150,000 to 180,000 Jews will remain here when the current crisis ends. “There’s going to be a big community.”
The JDC, overseas arm of the American Jewish community, switched its activities here last year from “technical assistance” (advice) to the type of welfare assistance it traditionally provides to indigent communities (cash grants, aid in getting medical care and making rent payments).
Its budget in Argentina, $500,000 in 2000, rose to $1.2 million in 2001 and $9 million this year. In 2003, “it’s probably going to be higher,” Schwager says.
Working with Tzedaka and the AMIA Jewish community organization, JDC has established 39 welfare centers where, in addition to money, clothing and psychological help is available.
Looking to a more-compact Jewish community, the JDC is helping to steer the merger of Jewish institutions. “The community can’t support a lot of 200-student schools,” Schwager says. “They need 660-to-800-student schools.
“Everyone is aware of down the road,” Schwager says. “Everyone is aware that the new community may not be as strong or as affluent as the old community was. Our expectation is that when the crisis is over — it’s going to be several years — this will go back to being a self-sustaining Jewish community.
Besides the JDC and Tzedaka, other major actors are the Emergency Fund for the Jewish Community in Argentina, an independent, New York-based group that helps pay for such expenses as school tuition and mortgage payments; the Jewish Agency, which has started an Israel-oriented, supplementary education program; the Jewish community centers, which offer informal Jewish education and job retraining courses; and Radio Jai (Spanish spelling of Chai), whose talk shows serve as an emotional outlet for listeners.
Jewish organizations are cooperating across religious and ethnic lines to battle the effects of poverty, Rabbi Goldman says. “This crisis gave us an opportunity to work together.”
“Given the current crisis, we will discover more Jews than we think,” Schwager says — formerly unaffiliated Jews who come to the JDC or other Jewish organizations for help.
The JDC used the recent communal Passover seders it sponsored, attended by some 15,000 people around the country, to reach Jews who might not reach seek other assistance.
“This is still a very, very proud community,” Schwager says. “Our traditional model when you have poor people is to give them food packages.” Here the JDC uses food vouchers to make purchases in Argentine groceries. “They’re embarrassed to be seen in the street carrying food packages.”
One JDC project, the Ariel Job Center Employment and Small Business Center, which has received funding from UJA-Federation of New York, offers assistance in such areas as writing resumes and finding work, retraining in computer skills and developing start-up businesses.
Two Ariel clients, electrical engineer Sergio Naidich and his attorney wife, Monica, both unemployed, have created Basket of Services, a photocopied collection of ads for neighborhood businesses, to pull themselves out of debt. “All our credit cards were at the top [level],” Sergio says.
The loss of income has affected a variety of Jewish institutions, from Radio Jai (www.radiojai.com), struggling to mark its 10th anniversary in September, to the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminary, which has launched an emergency $200,000 scholarship campaign.
“We had donors, but the donors are now worse off than the people here,” says Rabbi Margit Baumatz, who as director of social assistance at Lamroth Hakol, a congregation founded by Holocaust survivors, supervises a food pantry, used clothing center and other outreach activities.
“It’s the only community that has a rabbi” — so designated by title — “in charge of this,” Rabbi Baumatz says.
She tells of one elderly man who came recently to the clothing center, a former board room overflowing with racks and tables of donated items, and asked for 50 ties. He and his wife would wash and iron the ties, the rabbi says. “They were selling them for one peso. That was the money they used to eat.”
Sociedad Hebraica, the largest Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, recently hosted a lecture on “Humor in Difficult Times.”
“Davka [specifically] in times of crisis people use humor,” says Eliahu Toker, whose book “La felicidad no es todo en la vida: chistes judios” (Happiness is not enough for life: and other Jewish jokes), a collection of Jewish humor published in September, became a best-seller in the weeks after the crisis intensified.
At Comunidad Bet El, Rabbi Goldman notices more people attending his religion classes. “They need to be together, they need to hear Torah,” he says.
A recent panel on the situation co-sponsored by several Jewish organizations was titled “The biggest crisis in history,” but that may be an exaggeration.
“We’re not endangered, not in terms of Ethiopia, Russia … not that kind of danger,” says Bernardo Zugman, AMIA treasurer.
The community’s plight is attracting increased interest from Jews abroad, including fact-finding missions (a group from United Jewish Communities, with representatives from UJA-Federation, are in Argentina this week), and fund raising (UJC pledged more than $40 million this year for the rescue and relief of Argentine Jewry.)
Signs of anti-Semitism here?
“Not yet,” says Alfredo Neuburger, communications director of DAIA, the political arm of the Jewish community.
“Many Jews are waiting for an anti-Semitic demonstration,” says a longtime member of the community.
“If this happened in the 1960s,” says Ana Weinstein, who directs AMIA’s programs in communities outside of Buenos Aires, “there would have been claims that this had to do with Jews.”
But, she says, after the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 attack on the AMIA building, there is more public sympathy for the Jewish community.
Argentina’s modern Jewish community — most of the Marranos who fled the Inquisition in Spain five centuries ago assimilated into the general population —began in the mid-19th century with a wave of immigrants escaping persecution in Europe. Later immigrants, including Jews from Syria in the 1920s, followed. The country’s Jewish population, estimated two generations ago as near 400,000, started to decline in the 1970s with the rise of anti-Semitism under the right-wing military dictatorship.
Today Buenos Aires boasts a full range of Jewish educational and cultural institutions, kosher butchers and bakeries, country clubs and newspapers. Think London with a tango beat.
But enrollment at day schools is dropping, and membership in synagogues and community centers has declined. Several institutions have closed.
“Now the salaries are not enough to get to the end of the month,” says Oscar Gomez, who works in a real estate company. “The crisis is even worse than the one we had in 1989,” a time of hyperinflation, he says.
Then there were jobs. “Before, we could go out and have a cup of coffee, go to the movies,” says Gomez. “Now we don’t do that anymore. We cannot buy any clothes.”
Gomez already has sold his family’s house, moving with his wife, Leonor, whose chemical products firm went out of business five years ago, and the couple’s three children into a rented apartment. The family is staying in Argentina — for the near future — to be near their aging relatives.
The children receive scholarships to keep attending Jewish schools, and the family receives financial assistance from the Tzedaka Foundation. Is Gomez, still working, better off than his mostly unemployed friends? He shrugs weakly — yes. “But it’s very difficult to get used to all this.”
In the coming weeks, many Jews say they will decide to stay or leave, depending on the likelihood of finding work.
The Jewish community has already lost many experienced teachers, says Jorge Schulman, associate director of the JDC’s Latin American office. “They don’t have any prospects here. There are plenty of opportunities in the States for people with good skills.”
This week is the Steimetz family’s last here. Religious Zionists, Jose and Romina and their four children are making aliyah, moving to a religious settlement in the Golan Heights.
The added benefits offered to Argentine olim, rather than the crisis itself, influenced the Steimetz’ long-postponed decision, says Jose, who was still employed, as a clothing salesman. “I’m leaving the job; the job is not leaving me.
At the ORT Technical School, 17 seniors in an English class spoke with a visitor one recent morning.
How many plan to be here a decade from now?
Three hands went up.
“Are we prepared for 10 more years of suffering?” one young man asked rhetorically. “The worst part is insecurity — you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
For aging Holocaust survivors, the decision about leaving — or encouraging their children to leave — is particularly difficult. “They feel, ‘I lost my family 50 years ago. Now I’m losing them again,’ ” says the JDC’s Cullucar.
“I couldn’t stand another emigration,” says Holocaust survivor Marcos Thea, but her children can, she says. “I would let them go because they could lead a better life,” she says.
Matilda Mellikovsky is staying. A pensioner, she is the mother of a daughter who “disappeared,” among an estimated 30,000 Argentines, during the “Dirty War” of the military regime from 1976 to 1983.
Mellikovsky is a member of a group of mothers who march in a public square each week in the memory of their presumed-dead children. “I won’t leave the country because I don’t know what grave my daughter is in,” she says. “I’ll stay here until I know where my daughter is.”
And at the Chabad soup kitchen, which is designed like a cafeteria with volunteer waiters serving the meals, Norma Kanter says her future is in Argentina — Israel, while attractive, is too risky with ongoing Palestinian violence. “It’s better to be here,” she says between sips of soup. “We are not accustomed to the war. We are accustomed to being poor.” nSteve Lipman’s visit to Argentina was supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the North American Boards of Rabbis.