A Look at the Development of Jewish Social Services in Buenos Aires*
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The same political and economic influences that motivated hundreds of thousands of European Jews to emigrate to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have had a strikingly similar impact on the nation of Argentina.
Buenos Aires is home to many of the 244,000 Jews who live in Argentina. They comprise a vibrant community that over the decades has built a variety of social, political, and communal institutions which enhance the city's Jewish life. Like their counterparts throughout the U.S., they have created Jewish community centers, synagogues, schools, cemeteries, kosher restaurants, the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and other entities that contribute to a significant cultural dynamic.
However, in sharp contrast with conditions in the U.S., Argentina's Jews and their fellow countrymen today are struggling with a national economic crisis of a degree that has not been experienced since the Great Depression some 75 years ago.
In May 2004, I led a study trip for a group of social work students and staff from the Drachler Program of Jewish Communal Leadership at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. The trip was sponsored in part by the U-M International Institute's Experiential Learning Fund for Graduate and Professional School Students and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. Our purpose was to learn about Buenos Aires' Jewish community and its institutions and about how professionals there are coping with the economic crisis that had befallen the country. We wanted to establish communication between students studying to be Jewish Communal Professionals and those who function as such in Argentina.
The Argentinean Jewish community was hard hit by the fiscal crisis, since many of its members were members of the middle class: professionals, shopkeepers, factory owners, and government workers. The devastating effect is vividly illustrated by statistics. Prior to the onset of the fiscal crisis in 2001, the community helped about 4,000 welfare cases out of its own funds. After the onset, the caseload jumped to 36,000. According to the latest bulletin from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), this figure now stands at about 30,000.
Argentina's Jews have worked hard over the years to take care of themselves and their own community. However, many people now are suffering from emotional depression and issues of self-esteem. Although the Jewish community has opened soup kitchens, we found that many Jews preferred instead to go to Catholic churches so they would not be recognized. It is important to understand that the Argentinean Jewish community has prided itself on providing ongoing financial support to Israel and on the fact that it had never had to request financial help to take care of its own. The contrast was clear between my visits in 1998 and 1999, when the professionals were proud to show off their communal institutions; in 2002, when there was an almost overwhelming atmosphere of despair; and in 2004, when we found that there was a growing sense of hope.
What became obvious as the professionals' stories unfolded was that the community was pulling together in unprecedented ways. Past animosities among different segments were being overcome, and the various resources were being deployed in newly constructive and creative ways. This movement toward cooperation and mutual dedication to surviving a truly critical threat to the community is historically uncharacteristic for a number of reasons.
The first Jews who came to Argentina were businessmen and merchants from companies doing business in Buenos Aires in the 1860s. The first large wave of immigration took place in the 1880s, when conditions—including periodic pogroms—made life extremely difficult for Jews in Eastern Europe. During that period, Argentina opened its doors to immigrants who could help populate and develop areas of the country that the nation had conquered. Many of the first Jewish settlers were brought over to be farmers in these territories. In the ensuing years, they typically sent their children to the city to be further educated and to seek employment outside of the communes that had been established. The migration to the city accelerated in the early 1900s, when the Jews from the colonies who felt themselves unsuited to be farmers streamed into Buenos Aires. They were increasing joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews from Syria, Morocco, and Turkey.
As is typical in Jewish communities, many forms of communal institutions began to appear. The Argentinean Jewish community was intent upon becoming as self-sufficient as possible because it did not want to be perceived as a potential burden on the host community. However, the institutions developed in different forms. Eastern European Jews created their own organizations, synagogues, and forms of governance, as did the Sephardic Jews. As a result, separate and distinctive sets of Jewish institutions continued to serve different segments of the community.
Many of the Eastern European organizations had a secular and Zionist slant, as opposed to a strictly religious one. Many of those who came to South America were willing to throw some of their religious culture overboard, in favor of adopting new ways in a new land. Indeed, escape from tradition was an impetus to moving from the old countries. Yet there was an imperative toward creating Jewish institutions because of the predominance of Catholicism.
Judith Elkin wrote in her book, The Jews of Latin America, "But the Latin American Kehillot (governing structures) came into existence in response to the felt need for social services on the part of the Jewish immigrants who were faced by a variety of needs that were met neither by government nor by that traditional agency of social welfare, the Catholic Church." For example, public education promoted Catholicism as well as secular learning, and Jews were not welcome in the Catholic cemeteries. Thus, Jewish institutions had to be created to ensure the survival of Jewish values and culture. Jewish schools were a means to preserve Jewish traditions, and Jewish community centers were at the forefront of informal Jewish education, socialization, leisure, and cultural needs.
The respective segments of the Argentinean Jewish community not only developed different versions of the same kinds of institutions, but also had other sorts of differences: there was an environment of fractiousness between the groups that brought with them their own languages, customs, and cultural heritages from the countries they had fled. Rather than binding together as a cohesive ethnic community in their shared country, the Sephardim and Ashkenazic Jews remained separated by languages and customs. There was no unifying leadership. The German Jews who arrived later in the immigration cycle stayed away from the "Rusos," and they stayed away from the Hungarians, and so it went. Even when the community at large began to form its own Kehilla, it was designed by and for the predominant Ashkenazi community. The use of Yiddish excluded the Sephardim, who spoke Ladino brought from the Spanish-speaking countries. In the 1930s two institutions were created that deviated from the pattern of separation. The first was DAIA (Delegación de Asocianciones Israelistas Argentinas), whose purpose was to represent the entire Jewish community to the government of Argentina. The other was AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), which broadened its original mission of providing burial plots and maintaining synagogues to include other social welfare concerns. Immigration all but stopped in the 1950s, when Argentina tightened its policies regarding immigration, and the State of Israel was created. As a result, a reverse migration began as many Jews left the country to live in Israel. The high point of the country's Jewish population, 450,000, was recorded early in the decade. The impact of the emigration is reflected by the fact that less than a quarter-million Jews live in Argentina today.
A Persistent Element of Anti-Semitism
Another issue our study group learned about is Argentina's long history of anti-Semitism. It is a complex issue. The Catholic Church has been a powerful force in Argentina, to the degree that until the 1990s the president of the country was required to be a Catholic. Some Jews came to Argentina in the 1500s, but they could not assert their ethnicity. They were either tortured during the Inquisition (which was brought to this Spanish colony in that century), or otherwise coerced into converting to Catholicism.
Jews who settled in Argentina in subsequent, less-violent times brought with them the influence of the Enlightenment that had swept Europe. Most were more secular than religious in perspective. Being both Argentine and Jewish was frequently difficult, and many people chose to forgo the religious aspects of Jewish life and concentrate on Jewish culture.
Unlike their counterparts in the United States, the Jews of Argentina did not evolve in a country that strongly, and officially, values tolerance towards all religions. The Jewish community, however, was strongly Zionist. The concept of the State of Israel gave its members, like all other European immigrants, a sense of homeland.
There have been a number of incidents indicating that, while anti-Semitism was not a major factor in the development of the Argentinean Jewish community, it has been a persistent presence. For example, during World War II there was a high level of pro-Nazi sentiment. Juan Perón, then president, opened the country to Nazis as well as Jews. In the 1960s there was a backlash against the Jewish community after Israeli agents captured war criminal Adolph Eichmann in Argentina and delivered him to Israel for incarceration, trial, and execution. The local community was not involved in the operation or its aftermath, but nonetheless suffered repercussions.
In the 1970s, during rule by a military regime and the "dirty war," many Argentineans disappeared, doubtless murdered for political reasons and disposed of secretly. A disproportionate number of such victims were Jews. Similarly, according to sources, Jews were singled out for the worst of the torture.
In the 1990s both the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA Building (headquarters of many Jewish organizations and the community's archives) were bombed. Today there is still no resolution to either crime, and the government of Carlos Menem has been accused of complicity. Some people still fear that more attacks could happen.
As in many countries, Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Argentina. Stone barricades stand in front of the Jewish buildings to prevent car bombings, and the cost of security is increasingly a factor in the budgets of the community's institutions. However, despite Argentina's worst-ever economic crisis, people in the community with whom we spoke did not speak of being singled out. Anti-Semitism, while alive, does not seem to be a salient factor in the life of the Jewish community at this moment. Intermarriage and lack of a strong Jewish identity are perceived as greater threats than anti-Semitism.
Modern-day Jewish Communal Institutions
Unlike the U.S., where every major city has its own Jewish Federation and other agencies, most of Argentina's Jewish institutions are in the huge capital city of Buenos Aires. Also unlike the U.S., in the past there was no single agency responsible for overseeing or allocating money to these institutions. Every organization was a unique entity. There were alliances of synagogues and schools, but all fundraising was independently conducted by each organization for its own purposes. Frequently membership and activity fees were used to cover the costs. This was a fee-for-service model which had grown up from the refusal of various ethnic Jewish communities to work together. The largest community centers each had their own buildings in the city, plus several hundred acres in the surrounding countryside for country clubs. Each Jewish school served its own student body with varying degrees of success.
Only the poor, estimated before the crisis to number around 4,000, were supported by fees paid for burial plots to AMIA, which in turn was able to support social service centers whose workers helped provide for such needs as food, clothing, and shelter. Individual organizations and synagogues supported their own scholarships if needed. The community did not receive outside money or grants, except from the Jewish Agency (JAFI) which helped to support Jewish education with the aim of keeping Zionism a central tenet and encouraging aliyah (immigration to Israel).
However, times and needs have changed. Organizations that were once thriving are no longer able to meet their financial obligations. In an effort to keep the community intact, many are merging their assets, including memberships and personnel.
Previously there had been no umbrella fundraising efforts on behalf of the community at large. Most funds raised in the past have been in the interest of Israel. Donating has not been a large part of the culture. In the late 1990s the Tzedakah Foundation was created to help change the culture of giving by appealing to the wealthier members of the community for support. People are beginning to understand that they cannot depend on the largess of overseas communities to help them for more than a few years, by which time it is hoped they can be self-sufficient once again.
For many years in the U.S., Jewish organizations have hired professional staff to develop and maintain programs, create and oversee budgets, etc. Boards of directors are usually comprised of lay members of the community, individuals who are prominent either through family connection or philanthropy, and others with a strong interest in a particular aspect of Jewish life. The idea of Jewish staff professionals is a relatively new phenomenon in Argentina. Organizations are run by volunteer boards, which provide leadership and oversight. It was a mark of status to be affiliated with a board. Although there are professional staff members associated with these organizations, the teachers, rabbis, and social workers are largely underpaid. They also lack status and exercise little impact on policy decisions. The institutions are run by the largest donors, who are generally older and more conservative.
It wasn't until the early 1970s, for example, that the first paid professional executive director of Hebraica, the largest of the five Jewish community centers with over 12,000 members, was hired. Prior to that, the organization was run by the board and overseen by an accountant. It was only in 1987, with the help of the JDC, that the "Leatid" program was created to train professional staff and lay leaders of Jewish agencies in management, program planning, and fundraising, along with organizational development and a global Jewish perspective.
In the U.S., it is considered honorable to choose a career in Jewish communal service, and many executives come out of graduate schools of social work, sociology, psychology, and business. University-affiliated training programs in Jewish Communal Service have been available since the 1960s. In Argentina, advanced degrees have not been required, a fact which may tend to demean to "less than full-fledged" the perceived status of communal service professionals.
The Crisis and Beyond
The professional staffs of many agencies have been involved in a strategic planning initiative spearheaded by the JDC. They have deployed consultants to help reorganize and revitalize areas of Jewish life. Synagogues have merged, as have community centers. Leatid is continuing to train a new cohort of Jewish leaders. Hillel has taken the initiative to create a culture in its programs of ethical business behavior within the context of understanding of Jewish values.
The greatest concern cited by current professionals is the lack of a cohesive vision and the talent to pull the community together. They cite the need for more "bridges" between organizations. This requires an effort on the part of the professionals as well as the boards to plan strategically for the future of the Jewish community. The community has been described as a "group of institutions, not a community." Leatid is taking on the responsibility of more clearly defining the roles of lay leaders and those of professionals, trying to raise the perceived level of respect owed to the Jewish community's professional leadership. To date it has trained over 500 professionals and 1,000 lay leaders in all countries of Latin America. A group of young professional leaders is emerging, who are able to guide the lay leaders to run Jewish institutions in these changing times.
The economic crisis has given the community an opportunity to allow professional staff members to take on more responsibilities. They are much more likely to have a global view of the Jewish world and its diaspora communities. They are looking to North American models of success and working to adapt them to Argentina's unique culture. There is much more use of Internet education and contact among differing communities. The crisis presents them with opportunities to be creative. They are trying to develop a "think tank" for a Jewish renaissance, with the impetus to create new institutions for the 21st century which are proactive, rather than reactive.
Our study group discovered that there is much to learn from the Argentine community in these times. There is renewal of interest in religious identification, because it is the Jewish community that has come to the rescue of the destitute. The JDC has worked to help the community survive, while the JAFI has helped create opportunities to go to Israel. The global community has raised millions for a community that has never before had such major needs, and in the process, this larger Jewish community is learning about Argentina, perhaps for the first time. There is increasing collaboration among the professionals to make use of scarce resources.
It was a humbling experience to interact with and witness the creative process. Our group left Argentina with the distinct impression that this community and the country will emerge even stronger than before.
To quote Gabriel Trachtenberg, executive director of Hillel Argentina, "If your soul is connected with the spirit of the mission of the Jewish people, you will find vision, confidence and leadership to give to the people around you. Watch Argentina to see the phoenix rising."
Susan Sefansky is a clinical social worker at the U-M Health System.
*The author acknowledges with deep gratitude the valuable insight offered by Alberto Senderey, director of JDC operations in Latin America; Diego Freedman, associate director of JDC Latin America; Gabriel Trachtenberg, director of Hillel Argentina; Rabbi Sergio Bergman of BAMA; Rabbi Alejandro Avruj, NCI/Emanuel synagogue; Michael Novick, JDC executive director for strategic development; and Judith Elkin, University of Michigan.