(photo credit: Julie Gilgoff)
Before the Argentine economic crisis of 2002, Delilah Herbst worked as a journalist for ABC News. She had amassed life savings of $60,000 with the dream of buying herself a house by the sea. Overnight her life changed.
Herbst was one of millions of Argentines who lost their money as the peso plunged to a third of its value.
"Imagine going to the bank and being told that you can't withdraw your money," says Herbst. Instead of enjoying the ocean breeze, Herbst was forced to live in a slum for three years. She had invested her money with a family friend who ran away with it when the crash hit. Although she had valuable skills to offer, Herbst, like many others, was stuck in ramshackle circumstances.
The crash affected the middle class the hardest. Alejandro Kladniew, general director of the Latin American branch of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), says that before the economic crisis, there was an average of 4,000-8,000 impoverished Jews who came to his office each year for help. In 2003, there were suddenly 36,000 applying for assistance because they fell below the poverty line, making less than $100 per month.
Despite the desperate situation of the Jewish community, things have improved considerably. "The whole community has come together to help offer job training and social relief," Kladniew says. "La Sinagoga Libertad lent us a floor of their building for the Ariel Job Center, where we offer job training. The Lubavitch of Argentina is helping both religious and secular Jews acquire jobs and food."
Delilah Herbst's luck changed when she called the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA), which was offering aid to Jewish Argentines affected by the economic crash. It helped her get a new room in better conditions, gave her food stamps for the supermarket and got her a job teaching English.
While in that position, she met Ricardo Schuster from the JDC. He asked her if she wanted to go to the United States so that she could tell her story to potential donors from the Jewish Federation. It seemed that her luck had changed.
Right before her departure, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Latin America invited her to have coffee and offered her a job for when she returned from the United States. He was familiar with her work as a journalist and thought she could help his organization, which concentrates on fighting anti-Semitism.
Herbst says that the economic crisis was caused by the corrupt government's privatization of public services like water and energy, as well as Argentina's large debt to the IMF, which caused the middle class to disappear. Now there is a larger gap between the rich and the poor.
"Back when I was a child, my father, who was a lawyer, sent us to a private Jewish school. When I was raising my two children, I didn't have that option."
Diego Smalinsky, a 26-year-old Jewish student, echoes Herbst's sentiment. "Back when I was growing up, our family could take vacations. Nowadays, since the peso is one third of its [former] value - but all the travel fares are still in dollars - it's really hard."
He continues to explain the situation from his point of view. "The middle class will never grow to the same level," says Smalinsky. "Before, more people owned houses; there was credit. Now there is no credit in the banks, and only people who already have money can afford to buy. There's no chance to move up. The people who were already rich now have even more money. The poor or the middle class now have a lot less. In other countries there was always a big difference between the rich and the poor, but in Argentina it wasn't always like that."
Smalinsky has dreams of traveling to Europe, and to help pay his way, he has started an IT firm called DICOT (Design, Ideas, Creativity, Originality, Technology) to help both domestic and overseas companies use online resources to improve their sales. "Although I'm still finishing my thesis, students like me now need to work."
Smalinsky's sister, Nadia, acquired a job with the help of a Lubavitch rabbi in her community. The family isn't Orthodox, but the Jewish community has come together across denominational lines to help each other recover from the crisis.
FABIAN TRISKIER, program director of JDC Argentina, explains that through the community's efforts and a gradual improvement of the country's economy, 14,000 out of the 36,000 impoverished Jews seeking assistance have risen above the poverty level. The remaining 22,000 are the most vulnerable groups who have a hard time working, like the elderly and single mothers.
"The number of single Jewish mothers in Argentina has risen with the economic decline. If the mothers decide to work, they have to pay for daycare, which often costs more than their salary," Triskier states empathetically.
There are over a thousand Jewish babies in Argentina under the age of three who fall below the poverty line. They need additional help in receiving food, housing, and medical care. The JDC set up an organization called Baby Help to cover those needs.
The families eligible for this service receive a bag of food, monthly or bimonthly, depending on their economic situation. There are also different types of packages offered to children depending on their age: some packages have formula, diapers, baby food, vitamins and medication if necessary. Baby Help gives these babies vaccinations against chicken pox and hepatitis.
Since religious observance often becomes more difficult for poor mothers due to financial constraints and inflexible work hours, Baby Help throws Rosh Hashana celebrations and offers brit mila ceremonies to the newborns who might not otherwise receive a circumcision.
Baby Help relies on volunteers to help care for the babies, especially during vacations from schools, when there is a greater demand for day care.
Elizabeth Kaplan, whose father, Randall Kaplan, is the president of International Hillel, is in Buenos Aires volunteering in Baby Help.
"This day care facility is so nice and the Jewish mothers who get to drop their kids here really appreciate it," she says.
Besides volunteering in Baby Help, Kaplan also spends a lot of time in the Hillel office, which she says is very different from the one on her campus at Brown University.
"Here in Argentina, the Hillel Center becomes really involved with helping people get work. They teach Argentine Jews resum and job skills, since it's so hard for people to find a job after the economic crisis. Although the economy is slowly improving in Argentina, it's still not considered to be reliable, which discourages foreign investment. There's still no security."
SINCE THE Jewish community is by no means the only community in Argentina suffering from the economic crash, the JDC and other Jewish organizations have become involved in many non-sectarian programs to help the greater population.
"The 'Joint' has a presence in all countries where there is a Jewish population," says Triskier. "We are there to help the Jewish poor, but also the rest of the population. In that way, we help fight anti-Semitism."
Currently, the JDC has developed a relationship with a Catholic social service branch called Caritas. These Jewish and Catholic organizations co-sponsored 30 soup kitchens across Argentina; most of which are in shanty towns.
One soup kitchen, in a neighborhood called La Villa, was started by a Catholic community activist named Alicia Alejandra Garcia. Through her activism she encountered many members of the Jewish community at common meetings, and slowly developed a relationship with them.
Garcia and other community members decided that they wanted the help of the JDC to construct a second floor to the soup kitchen to use for a micro-business sewing project. At present, there are 30 Catholic women employed in various projects such as making book bags for the Argentine Ministry of Education. Through the publicity that this micro-business has received, local NGOs soon found out about the services it provided, and contracted these women to make dolls that have been sent to Africa.
One EMPLOYEE at the micro-business, Estella Gonzales, knew nothing about sewing before she received training. She has seven children who all go to the soup kitchen to eat. She has worked on the second floor at the micro-business since the economic crash. Before that, she used to work long hours cleaning boats at a local port. "I like this work a lot better," Gonzales states. "This way, I get to stay closer to my kids."
Because of Jewish social service organizations' good reputation in providing aid for Argentina, members of the federal government use the Jewish philanthropic infrastructure as a model for their own programs.
For example, the government recently requested a meeting with the JDC to ask how it had implemented a food stamp program, which efficiently gives each recipient a sort of credit card for the supermarket to deduct money from their account and keep track of how much they have remaining.
"The programs of the Joint are sometimes more effective and sophisticated than those of the government," Kladniew says.
He considers part of the role of his organization is to put pressure on the Argentine government to provide more services for its people. "More and more services are being provided, but it's still not enough," he says.
Kladniew explains that besides looking at how Jewish individuals are recovering from the crisis, it's also important to look at Jewish institutions.
"Many neighborhoods that were middle class are now lower middle class. Many day schools and synagogues are closing because they can't pay the teachers or rabbis anymore. Many segments of the Jewish population can't pay the membership fees any longer," says Kladniew.
Despite enormous efforts to help Jewish and non-Jewish Argentines, Kladiew accepts his limitations. He states sadly, "We provide relief, but we cannot find all the solutions."