BUENOS AIRES, Oct. 30 (JTA) — A cost-cutting initiative to merge Argentina's Jewish institutions is gaining steam.
Local Jewish officials began taking the initiative seriously in 2000, after some 10 years of financial difficulties took a severe toll on the institutions.
Spurred by a national financial crisis late last year -- and a subsequent wave of Jewish emigration that further sapped communal reserves -- the officials embarked on a series of mergers that have affected Jewish schools, clubs, community centers and congregations.
"The magnitude of the transformation is unprecedented in the Jewish world," Alberto Senderey, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's community development director for Europe and Latin America, told JTA.
Facing requests from Argentine Jewish groups for advice on how to reorganize operations or merge with other groups, the local JDC office opened a department to provide information and economic support.
AMIA, one of the central Jewish institutions for Argentine Jews, also has been providing help with mergers, particularly for schools.
"The kids and their Jewish education are sacred. The walls are not," Abraham Kaul, AMIA's president, told JTA.
Mere "buildings without Jewish life inside" are not worth preserving, he added.
With this in mind, AMIA has encouraged drastic new steps for schools that have lost substantial numbers of students or have fallen behind in salary payments.
"If you are looking for a high quality education, you have to understand that with 100 kids in a whole school it is impossible to afford an important science laboratory," Senderey said. "You need more than 500 students to have a school with a feasible plan."
Since local Jewish institutions have different ideologies, outlooks and traditions, not every group wants to merge with another institution, experts agree. They start thinking about partnerships when they realize they can no longer exist financially by themselves.
But Senderey noted that it is crucial to try "to maintain Jewish diversity and pluralism" as the merger process continues.
Less than a decade ago, when some 80 percent of Argentina's 200,000 Jews were considered middle class, the idea of large-scale mergers would have been unthinkable.
But subsequent recession and inflation took their toll on the middle class. No longer able to pay the monthly fees of Jewish institutions, many Jews suspended their memberships.
Moreover, as increasing numbers of Jews seeking a better life left Argentina for Israel or other countries, Jewish clubs, congregations and schools suffered additional losses.
According to experts, an estimated 6,000 Jews will make aliyah this year. They will join approximately 80,000 Argentine Jews already living in Israel.
There are no current estimates regarding the number of Argentine Jews immigrating to other countries. But the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps such emigres, says it receives more than 100 inquiries a day.
According to JDC, more than 50 Argentine Jewish institutions are already in the process of restructuring. Some are merging, while others are engaging in partnerships for certain projects.
Experts say some 20,000 Argentine Jews will be affected by these moves.
The most significant restructuring project is the alliance between the nation's two largest Jewish clubs, Hebraica and Hacoaj. Together they serve almost 15,000 people.
Diego Freedman, associate director of the JDC's new development and organizational strengthening department, said that after merging some operations the two clubs will save more than $305,000 a year.
But those savings came with a cost: Some staff members were fired and the headquarters of Hacoaj was shut down.
The two clubs were longtime rivals in sports such as soccer and tennis. But economic considerations took precedence.
Club members are taking the restructuring in stride.
"With the deep economic crisis, we can't afford so many buildings," said Laura Goldman, 34, a longtime member of Hacoaj.
Hebraica's vice president, Israel Maganiezin, said he does not see much opposition to the clubs' merger.
Their rivalries may soon be a thing of the past, given the prediction by the JDC's Freedman that the two clubs would share a name in less than two years.
The merger movement also has affected Jewish schools, which have seen enrollment decline from 24,000 students in 1990 to 17,000 in 2002.
In the northern outskirts of Buenos Aires, for example, the Tarbut school is taking over the Scholem Aleijem school.
With 70 years of history -- but, today, only 147 students -- Scholem Aleijem became unsustainable as an independent entity.
The only other Jewish school in the neighborhood, Tarbut -- 41 years old and with an enrollment of 1,000 students -- said it would accept Scholem Aleijem's students. It pledged not to raise their monthly tuition, which is one-third that of Tarbut's.
Sergio Herskovits, Tarbut's executive director, told JTA that Tarbut was able to make the offer to Scholem Aleijem's students thanks to financial support from a U.S.-based school, the Bicultural Day School in Stamford, Conn.
The merger could provoke some social strains, Herskovits said, adding that Tarbut's students come from upper-middle class families, while Scholem Aleijem's students are less prosperous.
Just the same, Herskovits said, Tarbut officials plan to do what they can to mediate such differences.
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