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Latin American Jews seek economic stability in Miami
JTA / July 9, 2003

By Larry Luxner

MIAMI  At a suburban shopping mall on 169th Street and Collins Avenue, hungry lunch customers can choose anything from Einstein Brothers Bagels and Parrilla San Telmo to the pollo asado and sizzling fajita taco salad at Mexico Bravo Glatt Kosher.

Further south along Collins Avenue, one can visit the Buenos Aires Bakery, a popular sidewalk cafe that sells bottled Israeli fruit juice along with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and half a dozen brands of yerba mate, a traditional Argentine herbal tea.

One of the cafe's regulars is Alvaro Psevoznik, a 31-year-old secular Jew from the northwestern Argentine province of Salta.

Psevoznik, who owned a radio station back home, also promoted local rock concerts for a living. But when his country's worsening economic crisis started cutting into ticket sales, the young man decided it was time to pack his bags for Miami.

"I came here alone on a tourist visa, with $4,000 and no job," he told JTA. "For six months, I was living off my savings, looking for work until I found two part-time jobs: one as a graphic designer, and one with a company that does shows."

Eventually, Psevonznik sent for his wife, Marcela, and their two small children. Marcela, formerly a teacher at the only Jewish school in Salta, got an R-1 religious visa with the help of the Latin American Migration Project (LAMP) and now teaches at Temple Israel of Greater Miami. LAMP also helped the family obtain a $1,000 loan to pay INS and lawyers' fees, though he says money is still very tight.

If Psevoznik feels alone, he shouldn't. Just as New York was the U.S. gateway for Eastern European Jews escaping persecution 100 years ago, Miami has today become the gateway for thousands of Latin American Jews escaping economic uncertainty.

Just how many of them are here, no one really knows. In 1994, a demographic study by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation (GMJF) revealed around 12,000 Jews of Hispanic origin, or 5.6% of the Jewish total, living in Miami-Dade County.

Today, the number is substantially larger maybe even double with the biggest contingent coming from Argentina and smaller numbers from Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere. Yet they have little to do with the 8,000 Cuban Jews who arrived in the early 1960s, nor have they succeeded in mixing with the 135,000 or so English-speaking American Jews in their midst.

"I'm pleased at the pace with which our synagogues and Jewish agencies have reached out and begun to involve them," said Jacob Solomon, the federation's executive vice-president. "But so far, the nature of that involvement has largely consisted of programs and activities designed specifically for them. In other words, they're getting connected, but not integrated."

Furthermore, large discrepancies exist among these new immigrants, some of who arrive with next to nothing and others who have salted away millions of dollars in U.S. bank accounts.

Many of these new arrivals rent small apartments in North Miami Beach, near the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center where LAMP has its headquarters. Hundreds of wealthier Jewish families from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela live in the high-rise luxury condos in Sunny Isles and Aventura that they bought years ago as investments or second homes.

A growing number of Latin Jews have also begun settling in Weston, a Fort Lauderdale suburb on the edge of the Everglades.

Marina C. Blachman, LAMP's coordinator, said her program began in June 2001 with a $240,000 grant from the Jewish Federation. Since then, LAMP has assisted over 2,500 people, of which 80% are from Argentina, 5% from Venezuela, 3% from Uruguay, 2% from Colombia and 10% from other Latin American countries, principally Brazil, Peru and Cuba.

"Most people came in the first year and a half, when they could get here without a visa," she said. "They just bought a plane ticket and took one suitcase with them. A lot of them came to my office directly from the airport. But now it's different."

Since February 2002, when U.S. immigration authorities removed Argentina from the visa waiver program, prospective travelers must first visit the U.S. Consulate in Buenos Aires before they can fly here.

"To get a visa, you need to show you have a bank account and credit cards. You have to show them you're not planning to stay in the United States," said Blachman, 38, who has a master's degree in mental health and emigrated here from Argentina eight years ago.

Those who arrive on a three-month tourist visa must obtain a non-immigrant working visa if they wish to get a job, though Blachman said changing one's legal status is getting harder to do as post-9/11 immigration laws become stricter.

"If they don't get the [working] visa, they stay illegally, but a lot of those people end up going back to Argentina, because they can't do anything here," she said. "We try to help them anyway not with jobs, because that would be illegal but if they need food, we won't let them starve."

During LAMP's first year of operation, whole families showed up, hoping to stay legally in this country. But the end of visa waivers for Argentines has streamlined the process somewhat, and now usually only the father comes to look for a job and schools for the children; if he's successful, he sends for his family. Said Blachman: "We don't ask how much money they have in the bank, unless they come here asking for financial assistance."

Juan M. Dircie, LAMP's case manager, came from Buenos Aires two years ago, having worked at Bar-Ilan University as well as the local offices of United Israel Appeal and Keren Hayesod. Like many professionals in the same boat, he could have moved to Israel but decided to settle in South Florida because his wife who has a doctorate in biology was offered a research position at the University of Miami.

"The ones who go to Israel have no other possibilities," he said. "In Israel, they give you the airline ticket, the housing, everything. You come here, you're on your own."

Like Psevoznik, most Argentine Jews aren't religious at all, but they use the synagogues to socialize and make new contacts. At least eight Miami-area congregations now offer special Shabbat services in Spanish for Latin American Jews.

Eventually, however, these newcomers must adapt if they want to succeed.

"Anyone who thinks that Miami is full of Cubans and that you can speak only Spanish here is wrong," advised Psevoznik. "You need to learn English."

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