Amid economic crisis, communal seders fill a void

BUENOS AIRES — For several years, Jewish institutions in Argentina have hosted small communal seders for those unable to afford the celebration at home.

This Passover, the number of families in need of a communal seder has grown — as Argentine Jews, like other members of this beleaguered South American country, suffer from the effects of an ongoing economic crisis.

The number of Jews on welfare doubled in the past year — up to some 18,000 out of a total number of 200,000 Jews, according to Nora Blaistein, director of social programs at Tzedaka, a Jewish social services organization.

Enter Tzedaka and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The two groups are sponsoring communal seders for the second night of Passover — March 28.

With a variety of institutions — synagogues, welfare centers, old-age centers — hosting families across Argentina, organizers expect to gather at least 10,000 participants, mostly in Buenos Aires.

This is the first year that the JDC has felt the need to coordinate Argentine communal seders.

"This is a community that is in a serious state of depression. Many, many people have lost their jobs; people are on the verge of losing their apartments," Steven Schwager, JDC's chief operating officer, says, speaking in New York. "The idea of these seders is to bring normalcy back into these people's lives and give them hope for the future, something they don't have at the moment."

Each host institution will provide about 30 volunteers, including singers and people to run the seders.

"We plan to respect all differences, to have everyone comfortable — those who have more secular celebrations and those who are more observant," says Monica Cullucar, a JDC official in Argentina.

For many of the volunteers, helping with the seders is a responsibility they take seriously.

"There are too many families needing food" and community support who won't have the strength to prepare for Passover, said Lidia Azubel, 55, the president of the Bet-El Jewish community center. "And as a Jewish community member, I take this as an obligation. It is not charity, it is justice."

Joseph Thalheimer agrees.

"I see Pesach as my favorite Jewish celebration, a moment to be with family or loved ones. I know there are now many Jews without the mood for Passover joy. That is why I want to help in this specific program," says Thalheimer, a 19-year-old from Baltimore who is working as an intern at the Hebraica Jewish community center.