JDC leads organizations trying to pull
Argentine Jewry out of societal crisis.
Special to the Jewish. News
escribing the condition of Argentina's economy as merely having
"declined" since my last visit to that country four years ago would
be an understatement. The nation's fiscal crisis has had a profound
impact on its large Jewish population. .
The Jewish community of Argentina has been largely middle class: shop-
keepers, factory owners, business people and professionals. Few among them
could have foreseen a downturn of such massive proportions. Although
warning signals of a brewing economic crisis surfaced as long as five years
ago, when the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) pub-
lished a report on the Nueva Probreza, (the new middle class poor) in
Argentina, there was no more than a hint of the current fiscal meltdown.
When I first visited the country in 1997 to study the Jewish community,
and still during my 1998 trip, the professionals were proud to show me the
beautiful Jewish community centers and Jewish country clubs. The ORT
high schools were thriving and there had been a rebirth at the poor
Mataderos Synagogue, which attracted more than 200 people to Kabbalat
Shabbat services. A majority of the community sent its children to Jewish day
schools. The JDC was running professional training programs.
Buenos Aires was a friendly and safe metropolis, as beautiful as any
European city I've ever visited. I was rarely confronted by evidence of serious
social issues, such as homelessness or panhandling.
In October, however, I experienced and observed a sharp contrast. I was
taken to visit a soup kitchen, a job center, the Farmacia (community phar-
macy) and the social-assistance headquarters.
Virtually everywhere were people in the street who had been forced to beg
for their day's food. One afternoon after lunch, a young boy approached my
friend and me outside a restaurant. He held out his hand, but he wasn't ask-
ing for money, as we would expect in the States. He needed food.
My friend went back into the restaurant and ordered a meal to be taken
out to the street, which was eagerly accepted. The incident was heartbreak-
The collapse of Argentina's economy has made both food and medicine
very expensive. At the two ORT high schools, which enroll over 4,000 stu-
dents, 35 percent of the student body now is on scholarship. The schools, in
response to the financial distress of many families, are offering free breakfasts
and lunches to those children whose families are least able to provide meals
and whose learning ability otherwise would be compromised by constant
Top left: Argentine Hillel fellows Roberto Porzecanski and Silvana Pedrowicz.
Top right: Susan Sefansky and Hillel Buenos Aires Director Gabriel Trajtenberg in front of
the soon-to-be renovated Hillel House.
They also are operating the school infir-
mary to provide for the needs of people who
have no other access to basic health care serv-
Many older Argentines, who had saved
their money for decades, have been financial-
ly wiped out, some in a matter of a few
weeks. Some had sold their homes and
moved to small apartments, expecting to
have a decent quality of life in their remain-
ing years, but now have none of the purchase
money left. They must continue working,
assuming they still have a job or a business,
to support themselves.
No article about Jewish Argentina would
be complete without mentioning the work of
the JDC. Together with other Jewish organi-
zations in Argentina, such as AMIA and the
Tzedakah Foundation, plus Jewish federa-
tions from the U.S., the organization has
addressed every aspect of Argentina's fiscal
disaster with dignity and hope. For example,
for the communal kitchen, established in
1945, JDC paid to re-paint and re-light the
dining room and now provides funds for an
additional 30 people to eat daily.
JDC has launched the Ariel Job Center,
where professionals and entrepreneurs can
come for assistance to start new businesses,
receive professional consultation, take loans,
access the Internet to job search, prepare
resumes, learn interviewing skills and receive
CADOSS , the main social-assistance cen-
ter, is seeing 150 new clients each week for
emergency services, then referring them to
local neighborhood centers for ongoing sup-
port and counseling. Clients are accommo-
dated by qualified social workers that con-
duct a private interview.
Although the services are delivered in older
Jewish buildings, I saw offices that were
clean, modern and computer-linked to pro-
vide a level of inter-office communication
that prevents duplication of effort. Dignity
and self-respect are not compromised even
though it is painful for most people who
come to the center to ask for help. But as the
crisis continues, people no longer have any-
thing left to sell, and more and more are
finding their way into the system.
The Farmacia, which provides medicines at
no cost, served 400 client referrals in June
2001. In contrast, it served 4,000 clients in
The JDC has created a new department of
community and organizational strength,
mrhich is taking the initiative to consolidate
and create institutions of quality by pooling
resources. Day schools will be merging and
MELTDOWN on page 32
Susan Sefansky, a Detroit native and clinical social worker for 25years, is currently an adjunct lecturer at the University of Michigan School of Social Work in Ann Arbor
She also is on the Latin American Task Force of International Hillel and the Israel and Overseas Education Subcommittee of the Washtenaw Jewish Federation. E-mail: