Argentinas Jews face new crisis, JDC speaker says in S.F.

"They don't have the infrastructure. They don't have the resources and they have a $20 million deficit," says Marcia Mintz, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's desk officer for Latin America,Western Europe and the Baltic States.

Mintz, who was in San Francisco last week to address the United Jewish Appeal's Lion of Judah women's conference, spoke about Argentina's crisis during an interview Friday at the Jewish Community Federation offices. She was accompanied on her trip from New York by the JDC's Andrea Haas, who discussed the crisis in her native Slovakia.

Until recently, the 250,000 mostly middle-class Jews of Argentina were thriving, according to Mintz. But in the '90s, an influx of foreign-owned megastores resulted in the closure of more than 50,000 small and midsize businesses.

Suddenly large numbers of Jews who formerly owned and operated retail establishments were out of work and without transferrable skills, she says. Many are between ages 30 and 50.

The AMIA, which normally handled a caseload of 4,000 a year, now copes with 4,000 a day, according to Mintz. But the AMIA is not in a position to solve the crisis without help.

That's why the JDC, which receives funding from local federations through United Jewish Appeal, is stepping up its efforts in Argentina. Also known as the Joint, the JDC is the principal international Jewish relief organization.

Twenty percent of the funding that the S.F.-based JCF gives to the UJA goes to the JDC. This year the JCF also gave an additional $200,000 to the JDC for its programs aiding poor elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union.

Discussing the JDC's work in Argentina, Mintz says the troubled economy is only one issue. The Jewish community is still reeling from the Buenos Aires bombing that flattened AMIA's headquarters, claiming 87 lives and injuring more than 200.

"The JDC is rebuilding a community which was not only physically bombed but spiritually bombed. Truthfully, the community hasn't fully recovered from either of these bombings. So far, no one has been prosecuted for either. The reality is that the perpetrators for both of these bombings will probably never be brought to justice."

While many American leaders came to the support of Argentina's Jewish community after the bombing, the situation "didn't become a major world Jewry issue," Mintz says. Her goal is to rally U.S. aid.

"When JDC took a top leadership mission to Argentina last April, people said, `Please don't forget us. We feel abandoned. We feel alone.' They so appreciate American leaders coming to their support."

In alliance with the AMIA and other Argentine groups, the JDC has launched a coalition to revitalize Argentina's Jewish institutions, offer business counseling and stem unemployment. A total of $1.25 million was committed.

The problems are manifold. For one, unemployment has had a ripple effect, taking a toll not only on the Jewish middle-class but also on professionals, who find their services suddenly less in demand.

In addition, Jewish institutions, from day schools to synagogues to community centers and social-service providers, have been hit by decreased enrollment and lost revenues.

These institutions have traditionally operated on a pay-as-you-go basis, without endowment funds and with limited charitable contributions. Fund-raising drives were largely designed to raise money for Israel, with only 7 percent used locally, according to Mintz.

Finally, Argentina's government offers only limited social services, unemployment insurance and medical assistance, she says.

But there is good news. The coalition created a Volunteer Network to assist with community services. Jewish community centers, schools and synagogues have banded together to assist the poor, serving as centers for hot lunches, and distributing food and clothing. More importantly, in a community with no history of volunteerism, physicians, social workers and professionals are donating their services.

But Mintz would like to see more American involvement. What happened in Argentina "is something that could happen here — the collapse of the middle-class economy," she says. "In Buenos Aires, the top restaurants are packed every night. In the middle-class neighborhoods, they're empty. Two years ago, they were full."

In Slovakia, where there are between 3,000 and 5,000 Jews, the problems are also acute, says the JDC's Haas, 25, who is in the United States on a one-year fellowship.

One of her concerns is that Holocaust survivors in the former Czechoslovakia have yet to receive restitution, and many elderly Jews are needy. Another is that few Jews her age are grounded in their culture or religion.

"Madeleine Albright is not the exception," says Haas, noting that many of her friends when she was growing up did not know their families were Jewish. "I'm the exception. I'm very lucky."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].