Agencies here pitch in to aid the Jews of Argentina as U.S. groups raise millions for relief and res

The United Jewish Communities has pledged more than $40 million this year for the rescue and relief of the Jews of Argentina.

Now it's up to the local federations to foot the bill, and those in the Bay Area are rising to the task.

Last December, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation board approved a grant for $125,000 to help. In addition, a special fund has been established to provide relief for some 20,000 people who are virtually homeless.

Leaders of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay were set to be briefed this week on the situation in Argentina by American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee officials. Then, a special fund-raising effort will begin.

The Jewish Federation of Greater San Jose also plans to participate in the UJC effort.

"I'm sure in the days and weeks ahead we'll put together a special emergency appeal and raise some money and do our part," said Jon Friedenberg, the agency's executive director.

By and large, federations across the country say they are committed to meeting the goal their umbrella organization has set to aid Argentine Jews, whose country faces economic and political collapse.

"There is a broad recognition that responding to the crisis of the Jewish community in Argentina is precisely the reason why the federation system exists — to be able to make certain that people have food and medicine and to make certain that those who want to leave can do so," said John Ruskay, executive vice president of the UJA-Federation of New York.

Of the $40 million slated for this year, $35 million will be allotted to the Jewish Agency for Israel to manage aliyah, or immigration to Israel.

Those figures are based on an estimated 5,000 Argentines making aliyah to Israel this year.

The remaining funds will be directed to the JDC to provide food and medicine to a country where some 200,000 Jews live, thousands of them now in poverty.

But "the entire situation is very fluid," said Richard Bernstein, co-chair of the UJC's Argentinean Response Task Force.

An increase in dollars to meet an increase in demand is entirely possible, he said. The task force will monitor conditions and adjust the budget accordingly for at least the next few years.

"If we do the job right with the first families that come to Israel, more will come because the situation in Argentina isn't going to get better for a very long time," said Stephen Hoffman, UJC's president.

Despite the situation in Israel, Hoffman said, "aliyah is a real viable alternative for people to consider."

Local federations have until the end of the calendar year to turn over what has been designated as their "fair share" of the total.

Each federation's percentage is determined by the size of its annual campaign compared to the total of all of the federations' campaigns — a figure that totals roughly $900 million.

Chicago, for example, based upon a campaign last year that raised $67.2 million, is expected to contribute nearly $3 million to the Argentine crisis.

Around the country, federations are just beginning to determine how to raise the money. Some say they will conduct separate campaigns for the Argentine Jews, while others will take the money from their regular campaign funds.

Chicago, which is being asked to contribute the second largest amount after New York, plans to fold the Argentina package into its annual campaign drive, which this year is called the Israel Terror Relief campaign.

Chicago is already 15 percent ahead of its mark last year in its annual campaign, according to federation officials, and plans to dedicate all the funds that top its goal to "all the special needs Israel is encountering," which includes the Argentine aliyah.

While most federations expressed full support for the amount pledged by the UJC, some had questions.

Martin Abramowitz, vice president for planning and agency relations of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, expressed some concern over the UJC calculation.

Although his federation "will respond in some positive way" to the request and expressed deep respect for the work of the UJC's overseas partners, the Jewish Agency and the JDC, Abramowitz wanted a "better understanding of the Jewish Agency's prediction" of costs.

He specifically questioned the estimated cost of $7,000 for each person to arrive and be absorbed — and how that figure squares with the package of benefits that the Israeli government is offering a family of four.

He also wondered how the Jewish Agency is using its savings from a lower-than-projected immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

Addressing such concerns, David Sarnat, executive vice president of the Jewish Agency's North American section, said the numbers "were taken out of the air."

Sarnat, who is based in Atlanta, cited costs that included $1,950 for employment training, $1,630 for transportation to Israel and $235 for health care.

By comparison, he said, it cost $6,000 to bring each Ethiopian to Israel 10 years ago, when Israel conducted a major operation to bring in thousands of Ethiopian immigrants.

This year's request will cost the New York federation nearly $7 million.

In Cleveland, federation officials have already built the Argentine crisis into their campaign, which — like New York's — is ahead of schedule. They too are exploring ways to come up with the funds.

"The bottom line is we are committed to this," said Michael Bennett, spokesman for the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland. "It's just what we do as Jews — help Jews who are in trouble. I don't see this being any different."