JTA / July 15, 2003
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES — Argentina may have a new president, but life is still a struggle for thousands of Jews in what was once South America's most prosperous nation.
President Nestor Kirchner was inaugurated last May after his main rival, Carlos Menem — who governed Argentina from 1989 to 1999 — dropped out of a runoff election.
"Last year, people were expecting riots and even the possiblity of a civil war," said Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, director-general of Habad-Lubavitch Argentina. "People felt they didn't own anything. It was like the floor was moving underneath your feet. That's why nobody was spending a penny. They didn't see any future here. But today, there is optimism."
Economists expect Argentina's GDP to grow by 3-4% this year, after shrinking 10.9% in 2002 — the worst performance in a century. Even so, an estimated 60% of the country's 36 million inhabitants, and 35% of the country's 200,000 Jews, live below the poverty line. Unemployment is well over 20%.
"I think the new president has the best of intentions and has a very good team, but he cannot make miracles," said Bernardo Kliksberg, an economist at the Washington-based Inter-American Development Bank who has been asked to advise Kirchner. "The suffering of Argentina's Jews will continue, and we very urgently need more help from the American Jewish community. Every day, there are new Jewish poor in Argentina."
Even for Jews who are not impoverished, the country's economic crisis has triggered changes — some subtle and some not so subtle — in their daily lives.
"As a precaution, we never kept our money in Argentine banks, but in my practice, the crisis affected us terribly," said Freddy Rosenmeyer, a 71-year-old Buenos Aires dentist. "Our expenses jumped by 300%, but we couldn't increase fees for patients. We lost business because people couldn't afford dental care. I belong to a health insurance plan in which 50% of the patients were dropped because they couldn't pay their monthly premiums."
Rosenmeyer shares his practice with 62-year-old wife Alicia, who's also a dentist. In his spare time, he volunteers at the Asociación Filantropica Israelita, a Jewish charity in nearby Belgrano.
"We've had to live much more modestly these days," he said. "For example, I drive a 10-year-old car and my wife's car is seven years old. Before, we used to change cars every two or three years. All my sons have economic difficulties, and my daughter Deborah is an architect, but she works as a secretary in my practice because nobody's building anything."
Despite the difficulties, said Alicia, "we've never really thought of leaving Argentina."
Neither has Norma Vilk, who manages a paint factory in suburban San Martín and is married to Alfredo Vilk, an orthopedist.
"A lot of our competition had loans and were importing things on credit, and they went into bankruptcy," she said. "But not much happened to us because I had a healthy business. That really saved me from all this mess."
Mario Ringler, president of the Marshall T. Mayer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary in Buenos Aires, said the current crisis began in 1998, as Menem's second term of office was winding down.
"He was trying to change the rules of the constitution to be elected for a third time. Everything was politicized and corrupted," said Ringler, a lawyer. "In 1999, when the Peronist party lost the elections, things got out of control. Suddenly, from a level of 16%, unemployment skyrocketed to 22-24%. Argentina's whole financial structure collapsed."
The Jews, said Ringler, were affected more than anyone else.
"In the first place, most Jews were either economically active or lived from rents [stores or apartments buildings] that produced income. All found themselves with their properties but nobody to rent to, so they began selling their things. Many businesses closed, and about a third of Argentina's 200,000 Jews have passed below the poverty level. Now they're getting social assistance through special programs."
Grunblatt said his Lubavitch organization alone provides 8,000 of the poorest Jewish families throughout Buenos Aires with food, electricity and financial assistance.
"We have seven relief centers and four soup kitchens. We give out an average 100 meals a day in each kitchen," he said. "Before the crisis, we had maybe 1,000 poor Jewish families. That's why if America stops helping us and Argentina doesn't have the funds, all these people will be in big trouble."
Grunblatt said that since the crisis hit, about 10,000 Jews have left Argentina. About 6,000 of them moved to Israel, and the rest relocated to the United States and other countries.
The departure of so many Jews has made it next to impossible to raise funds among the local Jewish community. In years past, Habad's budget was $4 million, but only $600,000 of that went to social relief; the rest was spent on educational activities and youth programs. This year, Grunblatt has a budget of nearly $8 million; most of it will go to emergency relief.
Financial difficulties have also fueled an alarming increase among physical and sexual abuse of Jewish children by their own parents.
"We never dreamed we would have so many children here," said Karina Pincever, director of Ieladenu, a shelter for abused kids in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Once, which is predominantly Jewish.
Pincever said Ieladenu began in 1999 literally with two children — "a boy and a girl caught between the crossfire of a paranoid father and a depressive mother."
By January 2002, the program had grown to 96. Today, it assists 200 children, with another 250 on the waiting list. All have been exposed to family violence, sexual and emotional abuse, malnutrition, social isolation, orphanhood, psychiatric problems, delinquency, neglect or abandonment
"All these kids are at risk," she told JTA. "If they were orphans, they could be adopted. But they have their own parents and the law is different than in the U.S.," she said. "Because the crisis has destroyed the social fabric and the family structure, the same parents who used to care of their children have begun to abuse them."
Pincever said caring for the children costs an average $252 per child per month. Of the 200 children benefitting from Ieladenu, 30 participate in the "Small Home Program," which offers a safe and supporting place to protect children under extreme risk whose physical or psychological integrity is seriously threatened.
"Our work is to save the family," said Pincever. "We have to cure the parents so we can return their children to them."
While Argentina's economic crisis has wrecked thousands of lives, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, Grunblatt sees a silver lining to all this.
"This crisis definitely got a lot of people who were already out of the community back into the community," said the rabbi. "Since December, we're having a brit mila almost once a week of grown children who were never circumcised. All these families are finally reconnecting to the community."