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Uruguayan Jews' economic plight is severe, but often is overlooked
JTA / July 15, 2003

By Larry Luxner

MONTEVIDEO — Marina, 36, is the granddaughter of concentration-camp survivors who died when she was very young. Her parents worked in the textile industry but never saved much money because they had seven children to raise.

Today, Marina hawks CDs on the streets of Montevideo and takes care of other people's dogs, but is barely able to make ends meet.

Ester, a 63-year-old widow, was used to the good life; in the 1950s, her father owned eight butcher shops and was among the Jewish elite of Montevideo. But these days, times are tough, and the pension she receives from the Uruguayan government is not enough to live on. Nor is the help she gets from her two children, one of whom lives in Israel.

Ester and Marina are but two examples of Jewish poverty in Uruguay — a small, peaceful country that once had the most equitable distribution of income in South America.

Not long ago, more than 40,000 Jews lived in this nation of 3.3 million people. But almost half of them have emigrated — most of them to Israel — within the last five years.

Of the 23,000 Jews who remain in Uruguay, 95% reside in the capital, Montevideo; the other 5% are scattered in smaller cities such as Paysandú, Salto and Punta del Este.

"The general population thinks the Jewish community is in excellent shape, and that poverty among the Jews doesn't exist. Even senators, congressmen and journalists will tell you that," says Ed Kohn, executive vice-president of B'nai B'rith Uruguay. "We had nine leading journalists here for lunch recently, and they were shocked when we told them about the problems we're facing here."

According to a new 138-page study commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and entitled "Pobreza, Vulnerabilidad y Riesgo en la Comunidad Judía Uruguaya" (Poverty, Vulnerability and Risk in the Uruguayan Jewish Community), 22% of the country's adult Jewish population is "poor" and 40.5% "vulnerable."

This is a direct consequence of the economic meltdown in neighboring Argentina, which used to send two million tourists a year to Uruguay and, along with Brazil, accounted for much of the small country's external trade. But tourism and trade have suffered in the wake of regional economic difficulties, and last year, prices jumped by 25.9% even while Uruguay's GDP shrunk by an alarming 10.8%.

"The economy is very bad, one of the worst crises in the last 100 years," said motorcycle factory owner Leonardo Rozenblum. "It's not true that we live better than other Uruguayans. The Jews have the same economic problems as anyone else."

Five months ago, the community formed Fundación Tzedaka Uruguay, a non-profit organization aimed at helping several thousand Jewish families who have suddenly found themselves in poverty.

Rozenblum, president of Tzedaka Uruguay, said the Joint has awarded the foundation $120,000 this year, and that local Jews have pledged to match that amount.

"We're giving people vouchers so they can buy food in supermarkets and scholarships [equivalent to about $2,000 a year] so that their kids can attend Jewish schools for free," the 62-year-old philanthropist explained. "We're financing a community pharmacy to give medicines freely to those people who don't have money. We're also opening a training center with social workers and psychologists to assist individual cases."

Many of the problems Uruguayan Jews face are the same as those plaguing their brethren across the Río de la Plata, in Argentina. Yet because Uruguay is much smaller, the community's plight is not nearly as well-known abroad, said Rozenblum.

"The big difference between Uruguay and Argentina is that Argentina had more international marketing. It was in default," he said. "And they had the AMIA bombing, the Israeli Embassy attack. The Jewish world's attention was focused on Argentina, not us."

That sentiment is echoed by Luís Grosskopf, president of B'nai B'rith Uruguay.

For most of its 67-year existence, he told JTA, the group focused its philanthropic activities on needy Gentiles.

"Ten years ago, no one would have believed that our situation would become so critical that we'd also have to help a high percentage of the Jewish community," said Grosskopf, whose organization today has 700 members in 16 units throughout Montevideo. "We had poverty, but it wasn't so bad and we could handle it easily. Now it's hard to help, because everyone's standard of living has gone down."

Along trash-strewn Calle Soriano, just a few blocks from B'nai B'rith headquarters, pedestrians walk past the shuttered storefronts of Jewish-owned shops that have closed for lack of business. Even with the country's GDP projected to rise by 1-2% this year, the outlook for Uruguay's small-business sector looks bleak.

"At this moment, nobody's selling or buying," said Kohn. "The buildings are empty and I'm not sure they'd be able to sell them, if they have to in the near future."

Marcelo Cynovich is a 38-year-old telecom consultant who serves as president of Hillel Uruguay. He's also the volunteer hazan at the Yavne Community Center in suburban Pocitos, home to 54% of Montevideo's Jewish families — and he knows nearly everyone in the close-knit community.

"A lot of these families developed nicely with their little store or factory, and ended up affording a house in Pocitos, the nicest residential neighborhood of Uruguay," Cynovich explained over dinner one recent Shabbat evening. "But in the past five years, things have gotten worse, and these people weren't telling us their problems. Many Jews still live in nice apartments, but they're eating their savings, and the last thing they have is their house."

He added: "Society as a whole is used to handling structural poverty, but not how to handle the new poor. It's new for us, the way a middle-class family reacts when they face the fact that they're actually poor. We are in the process of learning."

At present, Uruguay has 20 synagogues, but only six of them hold weekly Shabbat services, and only Yavne functions every day.

Miriem Mautner de Liberman, president of the parents' board at Yavne, calls the institution a "religious Zionist" school and said many of the 350 children who attend it are on scholarships because their parents can't afford the $2,000-a-year tuition.

"Today, we're in a serious economic crisis," she said. "In the last two or three years, many of our young people have made aliyah. Some went to Spain and others to the States."

In August 2001, community leaders launched Hillel Uruguay — the first of its kind in Latin America — in an attempt to provide Jewish social and cultural life for the thousands of young Jews remaining in Uruguay.

Cynovich, who was instrumental in getting Hillel off the ground here, says it's one way of fighting what he calls an "explosion of intermarriage" in Uruguay.

"Our goal is that everyone should make aliyah, but those who remain in the Diaspora have the responsibility to continue with their Jewish lives," he said, adding that "it's not a matter of numbers. As long as there are Jews in Uruguay, we have a Jewish future."

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