JTA / July 12, 2004
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Things weren't always this desperate for Deborah Fischer and her husband Héctor.
Until a few years ago, the young Jewish couple sold notebooks, pencils and school supplies from their own kiosk, and rented a decent two-bedroom apartment in the middle-class Buenos Aires district of Paternal.
But then the Argentine economy imploded, and Deborah's life was turned upside down.
Today, the entire family is crammed into a one-room storefront along Avenida Caracas. Their shop long gone, Héctor now peddles off-brand sneakers in the street, while Deborah — who is 34 but easily looks 10 years older — takes care of their seven-month-old daughter Valeria and hyperactive 5-year-old son Lionel.
The apartment, which rents for 230 pesos ($78) a month, is barely big enough for two beds, a crib, a TV set and a kitchen table. The tiny Kelvinator fridge in the corner is practically empty, and the bathroom has no running water. If not for handouts from the American Joint Distribution Committee and other organizations, the Fischer family would probably be out on the street.
"We cannot shower. We can't move around," said Deborah, who once spent two years in Israel and still speaks some Hebrew. "I'd return to Israel, but when I lived there, I was a different person. Now I have two kids, and it's not so easy."
Not all of Argentina's 250,000 or so Jews are in such dire straits, and some are doing much better since the country's economic crisis peaked in 2002.
But today, as the Jewish community marks the 10th anniversary of the bombing of the headquarters of AMIA — Argentina's leading Jewish organization — that community as a whole remains deeply scarred, psychologically, emotionally and economically.
Abraham E. Kaul, president of AMIA since May 2002, said that among other things, many Jews here fear a third large-scale terrorist attack. The AMIA car-bombing, which killed 85 people and left over 300 injured, came only two years after a bomb destroyed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people and injuring hundreds.
"I recently received an urgent call on my cellphone, and the first thing I thought was that a synagogue had been bombed," Kaul told JTA. "But it wasn't that. Someone I knew had died in an auto accident. The point is, we have incorporated this idea in our heads that there can be another attack at any time, at any place. This is now a part of being Jewish in Argentina."
The Jewish community is deeply frustrated that, 10 years after the deadliest terrorist bombing in Latin American history, no one has formally been charged with the crime, adding to the paranoia. There's also deep distrust between AMIA and another Jewish umbrella group, DAIA, following rumors that DAIA's former president, Rubén Beraja, refused to pressure former Argentine President Carlos Menem to investigate the AMIA bombing because Beraja was afraid of endangering his extensive business ties with the Menem government.
"After the attack, many people stopped going to Jewish institutions out of fear," said Alejandro Kladniew, the Joint's executive director for Latin America. "People are afraid. When you drop your kids off at a Jewish school, you know something might happen."
On the other hand, Argentina's once-virulent antisemitism seems to have subsided.
"I think the AMIA attack triggered a big feeling of solidarity by Argentines towards the Jews, and an acceptance that the Jews are a part of Argentine society," said Kaul. "The economic crisis showed that the Jews are suffering the same as everyone else."
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Jews, about one-fourth of the total, still live below the poverty line, and some 35,000 Jews receive food, housing and other forms of assistance on a daily basis. Much of that help comes from the United States, thanks to the Joint's $10 million program for Argentina.
"Without that aid, they'd be going to bed hungry at night, and some would be put out on the street," said Will Recant, executive vice-president of the New York-based Joint.
Despite the country's 8.8% economic growth last year, the gap between wealth and poverty is widening every day, with Argentina now suffering one of the most unequal distributions of income in Latin America.
In 2003, according to government statistics, the richest 10% of Argentina's 36 million inhabitants controlled 38.6% of produced wealth and made 31 times as much money as the poorest 10%. In 1974, when the government began keeping such statistics, the wealthiest sector was only 12 times better off than the poorest sector.
"There's been an improvement, with only 48% of Argentines living below the poverty line compared to 58% at the end of 2002," said Bernardo Kliksberg, an Argentine Jewish economist at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. "But one of every two Argentines is still poor, earning less than $250 a month, and there are at least 2,000 homeless Jewish people and increasing numbers of Jewish street children. This is unprecedented in modern Jewish history."
Kliksberg added: "Help from American Jews has been very important, but we're hearing from community leaders that Argentina is no longer on their priority list. This is a very dangerous impression. If this help to Argentine Jews is reduced, it'll be a tragedy."
Dora Berenstein, a 73-year-old widow, lives with her two dogs, Barbie and Leticia, in the Santa Fe provincial town of Moisesville. She gets by on 60 pesos ($20) a month in food coupons, and 100 pesos ($34) a month from the rental of two small apartments behind her crumbling house.
Berenstein has no children, and has been living in poverty since the death of her husband four years ago. "In Israel, I have lots of family, and I'm in contact with them, but none of them help me," she said. "I haven't asked them for help, and they wouldn't anyway. Everyone is for himself."
Street vendor Oscar Rodríguez, who isn't Jewish, receives assistance from the Chabad-Lubavitch charity thanks to his son, who attends the Morasha religious school in Buenos Aires. His Jewish wife, Monica, burned to death in an apartment fire two years ago, leaving Rodríguez, 46, to care for the little boy himself.
"Their help has been like a shock absorber," said Rodríguez, whose bedroom ceiling is still charred from the fire. "Sometimes they invite me to meetings. I know a lot of people from the Jewish community."
While few Jews are among Argentina's 40,000 unfortunate cartoneros who eke out a living by picking through the garbage at night, many Jewish people live in slums known as villas de miseria. These can be found in Buenos Aires districts such as Quilmes, Garnica, Morón and Lomas de Zamora.
More than 45% of AMIA's budget of $8 million now goes to social assistance — especially to people older than 45 who have little hope of finding work.
"In 2002, we opened two branches in El Magro and Paternal. These folks didn't have money to come to AMIA to get help, so we had to open branches there," said Kaul, whose organization runs soup kitchens, religious schools and other charitable institutions throughout the metropolitan area.
"For people living below the poverty line, life continues as before," said Kladniew. "Some people have found jobs, but unskilled jobs at very low salaries, jobs that don't even pay 500 pesos (around $170) a month. You can't buy anything with that."
Chabad-Lubavitch, which has 22 branches throughout the country, is also working to alleviate Jewish poverty.
"If we were at 10 points before the crisis, we dropped to five below zero. Today, we're at four above zero," said Rabbi Zvi Grunblatt, director of Chabad's Argentine operations. "But this means we really have a long way to go."
Earlier this month, Chabad found an apartment for a desperate Jewish family that was living in a cardboard-and-zinc shack on a piece of land given to them by the Catholic Church. Two of the five children had been suffering from pneumonia.
Grunblatt said the organization now has 250 kids enrolled in its Ieladenu center for impoverished and abused Jewish children.
"Three months ago, we received a child who was somewhat retarded," said Grunblatt. "After eating normally for two months at our Ieladenu center, the kid went into a normal kindergarten class. The problem wasn't that he was retarded, but malnourished."
The crisis has hit Argentina's Jews especially hard, since many of them were once happy, successful professionals who lost everything and are now reduced to accepting handouts.
"My father used to have a pharmacy," said Viviana, a 54-year-old social worker who asked that her last name not be used. "We always had maids, and he used to take us to Europe on holidays. Every year, my parents went to Club Med in Brazil."
Then, when Argentina's economic crisis started, the pharmacy went into debt, and her father sold the business to someone else and became an employee, rather than declare bankruptcy. Humiliated and psychologically devastated, he eventually developed cancer and died a few years ago.
"My father never spoke about his suffering, but I'm convinced that when he lost his economic and social position, that's when he got cancer," said Viviana, whose $100,000 in life savings disappeared when the Uruguayan bank in which her money was deposited went under. "But we are fortunate, because we have work and we're healthy. Many Jews are much worse off than us."
Like Deborah Fischer, the 34-year-old mother of two trying to make ends meet in her tiny, crowded Buenos Aires storefront apartment.
Asked what her dream is, the young woman said, "to get out of here," then added quietly: "To have enough water to be able to take a nice shower."