JTA / July 9, 2003
By Larry Luxner
MEXICO CITY — Last year, Bertha Avimelech landed a job managing Clyvia Boutique, a fancy dress shop fronting Avenida Masaryk in Mexico City's upscale Polanco neighborhood.
Avimelech, 45, earns the equivalent of $1,000 a month supervising seven salesgirls. That's not even enough to buy any of the imported wedding gowns she sells to her wealthy customers — but in Mexico's uncertain economy, every peso counts.
"My husband and I have a jewelry store, and I used to work with him there," she said. "But our sales went down, and what we making didn't cover the cost of our children's school. So I went to Fundación Activa to look for work, and they put me together with the owner of this store. If it weren't for them, I would have never found this job."
Fundación Activa was established in 1997 by the Comite Central de la Comunidad Judia de Mexico (CCJM), an umbrella organization representing Mexico's 40,000 Jews. Among other things, the foundation runs a job bank, matching businesses that need employees with members of the Jewish community looking for work.
"If you ask me whether I'm poor, I'd say no, I don't consider myself poor," said Avimelech. "But I know a lot of people in this same situation."
Indeed, even in suburban Mexico City — amidst the glitzy shopping malls of Polanco and the stately mansions of Chapultepec — one can find increasing pockets of Jewish poverty. That's because Mexico, its economy linked to the United States through NAFTA, has yet to recover from a recession that caused the country's GDP to grow by only 0.9% after contracting by 0.3% in 2001.
"About 85% of our exports go to the U.S. market," CCJM's director-general, Mauricio Lulka. "When the Americans aren't buying, we're not selling."
Lulka, a chemical engineer by profession, explained that in the past, his country was very protectionist. "But then we opened our borders to imports. Many businesses, including Jewish-owned businesses, weren't prepared for competition, so they closed."
While a handful of Mexican Jews — like Moisés Saba, the billionaire owner of TV Azteca — are extremely rich, insists Lulka, most members of the community are just middle to upper middle-class. In fact, he said, "between 8% and 10% of Mexican Jewish familes are considered poor by Jewish standards" and receive some type of official assistance.
"There's definitely poverty in the Jewish community," said Fundación Activa's director, Miriam de Picazo. "The middle class hasn't disappeared, but every day it's getting smaller. Our objective is to help people who, because of the economic crisis in this country, have lost their jobs or their businesses."
In the beginning, the service was free. But since June 2002, employers who hire job candidates listed in the foundation's "Bolsa de Trabajo" monthly bulletin are asked to make a tax-deductible donation equivalent to one-fourth of the applicant's first-month salary.
Between 1998 and 2002, about 65% of the 1,092 applicants interviewed by Picazo were eventually matched with Jewish employers.
One of them was Benjamin Alfie.
The 38-year-old father of two manages Mykonos, a discount apparel store in the heart of Mexico City's historic district. Here, surrounded by noisy pushcart peddlers and taco vendors, Alfie sells blue jeans, underwear and T-shirts to the Mexican working class — people whose socioeconomic level is a lot lower than his own.
Alfie, a descendant of Syrian Jews from Damascus, speaks Spanish and Hebrew but never made it past high school. Instead, he went into the retail business and eventually opened his own clothing store.
But as was the case with Avimelech, sales dropped and last year, he went to Fundación Activa in search of employment.
"Now I'm taking a course in business administration," Alfie told JTA. He explained that the $1,800 monthly salary he receives isn't enough to pay for his children's colegio — even though the community picks up 40% of the tuition. Alfie could send them to public school, which is free, but apparently that's not an option.
"For me," he declared, "it's very important that my kids get a Jewish education."
That attitude, prevalent throughout the community, may explain why only one in 10 Mexican Jews marry out of the faith — a lower intermarriage rate than maybe anywhere else in Latin America.
According to CCJM estimates, around 95% of the country's Jews live in sprawling Mexico City and its environs, mainly Polanco and the newer suburbs of Huixquilucan, Las Lomas and Cuajimalpa. The remaining 5% reside in Guadalajara and Monterrey, with smaller communities in Tijuana, Cancún and San Miguel de Allende.
More significantly, 95% of Jewish families in Mexico belong to one of the country's 25 or so synagogues, and 91% of Jewish children attend Jewish school — leading to a very strong religious identity and little assimilation.
Even as anti-Israel demonstrations have increased somewhat in the last 12 months, anti-Semitism is generally not a problem in this overwhelmingly Catholic society.
"Mexico is a very poor country, with 40% of the population living below the poverty line," said Renée Dayan-Shabot, director of Tribuna Israelita, a Jewish think tank. "So there is resentment against wealthy people here — but not because they're Jews."
In early June, President Vicente Fox signed into law a landmark bill that forbids religious, racial, sexual or cultural discrimination of any kind, including anti-Semitism.
"We're very happy that something like this has been passed in Mexico," said Dayán-Shabot. "We worked on this project for many years, and the Jewish community was part of the commission that analyzed this legislation."
Fox's cabinet currently includes three Jews: Victor Lichtinger, secretary of the environment; Julio Frenk, secretary of health, and Santiago Levy, director of the Social Security Institute. Two Jews, Claudia Sheinbaum and Jenny Saltiel, also hold high positions in the municipal government of Mexico City.
Despite its current economic slowdown, Mexico's Jews are far better off than their brethren in Argentina and Uruguay. In fact, Mexico has attracted at least 200 Argentine Jewish families since Argentina's economic crisis began spiraling out of control in 1999.
"Most of these newcomers are university graduates," said Rabbi Palti Somerstein, a Buenos Aires-born rabbi who did a six-year stint in Bolivia before being hired by Mexico City's Beth Israel Community Center several years ago.
The Argentines come here, he said, thanks to Mexico's relative prosperity and its Spanish-speaking culture. It's also easy to get residency here compared to the United States — especially since February 2002, when U.S. immigration authorities began requiring visas for Argentine visitors.
"Our congregation has built a network in order to help them find jobs, health care and other necessities," Somerstein said. "Some of them lost everything in Argentina, so they can't go back. I personally have found jobs here for at least 30 of them."