Argentinean Jewish communal institutions were formerly models and produced generations of leadership for the entire South American continent. Over the past several years this proud community has suffered the tumultuous effects of a multi-faceted crisis. Terror attacks at the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the AMIA building in 1994 left in their wake a community living in the shadow of violence, its once proud self-confidence and vitality a victim along with the scores of human casualties. Argentina's recent financial crisis, which began in 1998 and reached an acute phase in 2001, has claimed a heavy toll on the historically strong Jewish middle class. Economic strife has resulted in a rapidly growing population of the new poor and the collapse of leading Jewish banks—the traditional financial anchors for Jewish communal and educational activity. Faced with almost insurmountable financial and security concerns, leadership of the organized Jewish community, beleaguered as well by institutional debt and corruption, found itself unable to provide confidence and solutions to a community desperately seeking leadership.
The specific effects of this crisis on Jewish education and communal life have been stark and clear. The bank collapse dried up the financial foundations of the community's once expansive educational activity under the auspices of the AMIA. The crisis of leadership deprived the community of the needed resources to articulate a new vision and strategy to meet the radically altered economic and security surroundings. The deep recession fundamentally affected the middle class's ability to afford Jewish education, and the community's ability to support educational institutions. Furthermore, growing unemployment and reduced income have forced many families to drop out of Jewish communal life, with affiliation and services now beyond their economic means. This economic crisis has also had serious implications for the family structure and the psychological status.
Over the past several months, the Argentinean financial crisis has become even more grave. The number of Jewish Buenos Aires residents living beneath the poverty line is now 30,000. This worsening crisis is leading to ever-growing numbers of families who cannot afford communal and educational services. Foreign embassies have been engulfed by requests for entry visas, with some 14,000 on waiting lists at the Italian Embassy alone.
INCREASED ARGENTINEAN ALIYAH
As of the end of June, over 10,700 Argentinean Jews have requested information about Aliyah opportunities in Israel. Over 12,000 preliminary interviews have taken place, and approximately 6,000 files have been opened. Through the end of July 2002 over 3,000 Jews have made Aliyah. The total number of Argentinean new immigrants was 550 in July, and the pace of Aliyah is expected to increase over the next several months due to several factors: the beginning of the Israeli school year in September and parents desire to enroll their children; the beginning of the University semester in October; and the desire to take advantage of the "enhanced" absorption package that is available.
Argentina has traditionally been a strongly Zionist community with a vibrant legacy of Aliyah as part of a process of Jewish and Zionist fulfillment. Since the Establishment of the State of Israel, over 60,000 Argentinean Jews have moved to Israel, of these approximately 1,400 in the year 2001. For 2002 Aliyah is on the path to achieve, and possibly exceed, its goal of 5,000 new immigrants to Israel, a 250% increase.
With the current economic crisis in Argentina, the opportunity for Aliyah is less accessible for many families at the very time when life in Israel might provide new possibilities and hope. In the area of Aliyah, the Jewish Agency's objective is to reveal the opportunities offered by emigration to Israel to the general population, and to develop specific Aliyah and absorption programs to suit the needs and characteristics of particular groups within the Jewish community. These specific groups include families in financial crisis, students and youth movement graduates, rural populations, professionals, members of the Conservative community and former immigrants to Israel who have since returned to Argentina.
Successful Aliyah to Israel begins with the promotion and encouragement of Aliyah and the immigrant's proper preparation and orientation. However, Aliyah doesn't end with the arrival at the airport. Once in Israel, new immigrants face a host of cultural, social and economic challenges. The Jewish Agency is committed to helping immigrants meet these challenges by supplementing the absorption efforts of Israeli society and the Israeli government, which bear chief responsibility for immigrant absorption. Jewish Agency involvement in this area includes creating the proper environment in absorption centers, providing basic finances for absorption apartments to immigrants being directly absorbed by Israeli society and by focusing on vulnerable populations like students, single parent families and the elderly. The Jewish Agency is also involved in financing the initial Ulpan that immigrants receive after their arrival in Israel.
The Jewish Agency is currently investing $2.3M in Aliyah promotion and preparation for Argentinean new immigrants in Argentina. An additional $2.4M is being invested in programs that provide for the initial absorption of Argentinean Jews in Israel.
Activities Prior to the December Crisis:
Since late December, 2001, when violence broke out in the streets of Argentina, Jewish Agency offices overseas and in Israel have been working on double shifts to address the more than 8,500 queries and expedite the Aliyah of the thousands who have decided to begin a new life in the Jewish homeland. However, even before the recent economic crisis, the Jewish Agency recognized the increasing hardship of the Jewish community and began developing new programs for Aliyah promotion. The constellation of services and activities which had been put in place in the second half of 2001 has been integral to our ability to respond to the ongoing crisis in Argentina.
Responding to the Crisis:
In December 2001, immediately following the acute onset of the crisis, Jewish Agency offices were reorganized, and five additional shlichim and 30 additional local field workers were trained to respond to the huge increase in Aliyah inquiries, which quickly soared to over 200 per day. As part of the Jewish Agency's response to simplify and expedite the Aliyah process, 18 satellite offices were opened in order to provide a real-time response in Buenos Aires as well as in peripheral regions.
An integral part of the Jewish Agency response is the increased Jewish Agency-Government of Israel Absorption Assistance Package including:
An important aspect of Jewish Agency work is to reach out to the Argentinean Jewish community and raise awareness regarding the various options available to them in Israel. To achieve this, an increased number of missions have been sent to Latin America to conduct several major Aliyah fairs: