Creating a Nurturing Refuge For Argentine Children at Risk

By Bernardo Kliksberg

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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Jana was born some months ago in a public hospital in the city of Buenos Aires. Her mother, a penniless Jewish woman with psychological disorders, disappeared after giving birth to the little girl. The hospital delivered Jana to a state institution where a judge sent her to a Catholic orphanage.

Nobody knows how Jana’s mother later arrived at Ieladeinu, the first orphanage in Argentina for at-risk Jewish children — an initiative of Chabad Lubavitch. She told them about Jana and then disappeared again. Chabad located the girl and sent a petition to the judge so that Jana could be sent to Ieladeinu. The judge denied the petition, but Chabad appealed the decision based on a United Nations resolution that gives children the right to follow the faith of their parents. A superior court recently ruled in favor of sending Jana to Ieladeinu.

Jana came to this world without a mother or father to look after her. Now, she will have the opportunity to grow up in a kindhearted environment and receive a Jewish education. But this is only one of many cases, and not all of them are as “fortunate” as Jana.

Ieladeinu began when a judge received six small siblings from a broken home —their ages ranging from 6-months to 13-years old. The judge first asked the Jewish community if a Jewish institution existed that could take care of their needs. Otherwise he would send them to a state orphanage.

It is estimated that there are more than 450 at-risk Jewish children on the streets of Buenos Aires. They come from homes broken by the economic difficulties that are ravaging Argentina. Some of them have been victims of domestic violence; others are now in hospitals or juvenile detention centers. One was rescued from an institution where older children had been accused of sexually abusing the younger residents, and where other children would often throw stones at him calling him “Jew.”

According to Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, head of Chabad in Argentina, today Ieladeinu protects more than 150 kids, but the organization is aware of another 300 children in need of help, and their numbers are growing. Ieladeinu desperately needs funds to help those on its ever-lengthening list of needy children.

These children are being swept away by a wave of poverty that has destroyed the economic base of the Argentinean Jewish community and has impacted other communities throughout Latin American. Once a vibrant community with a top-tier educational system, the Argentinean Jewish community is now going through very difficult times. Between 1990 and 2000, 7 million people, roughly 20% of the Argentinean population, fell out of the middle class into poverty. Situated in the shrinking middle class, the Argentinean Jewish community found itself a part of the burgeoning socioeconomic group known as the “new poor.”

The policies adopted by the Argentinean government and the economic and social turmoil sank the Argentinean middle class and severely damaged the typical Jewish professions. Jewish-owned retail shops closed their doors as the small and medium businesses in which Jews had a strong presence went out of business. Elsewhere, professionals lost their clients, and those living off of pensions were particularly hard hit.

Some of the latest figures indicate there are approximately 60,000 Jews living under the poverty line in Argentina. Many synagogues in Buenos Aires, such as Congregacion Betel, Sinagoga Libertad and Sinagoga Sucat David, have been converted into soup kitchens to feed the new poor. Many other communal institutions, such as the 26 Chabad centers, have established social networks to offer relief. The Jewish Argentinean Mutual Association, known as AMIA, whose building was destroyed after a 1994 terrorist bombing, feeds around 5,000 people every day. Its renowned Occupational Center receives thousands of applications every week from young professionals who lost their jobs — unemployment in Argentina is as high as 22%.

Some of the strongest social institutions, such as AMIA, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Tzedaka Foundation and Alianza Solidaria, have multiplied their efforts to reach thousands of people. Without the commitment and determination of institutions like these that serve approximately 30,000 destitute Jews, many would have lost hope. In a drastically impoverished community that has been forced to close down many of its central institutions, these efforts are possible mostly through the initiative of 10,000 volunteer workers and the support of the American Jewish community.

Nevertheless, all of these efforts and enthusiasm are not sufficient. The existing social networks reach only half of the poor in a community of 220,000 Argentinean Jews. Greater help is needed. The situation is indeed more complex than the sad picture drawn above. There are many families on the brink of losing their properties, unable to even pay the monthly utilities needed to maintain their households. An estimated 2,000 families are now living in hostels or motels on community or municipal support, with parents and children sometimes crowded together in a single room.

Jewish schools have seen large numbers of students leave, despite enormous efforts to award grants to all students in need of them. At the university level, most of the students who receive subsidies from the community have left school because of poverty.

Social auto-exclusion presents another problem. Households with very scarce resources tend to exclude themselves from the community, not only because of economic reasons, but also because of a feeling of shame that drives people away from social activities in general. This trend is creating a periphery of self-excluded Jewish families and individuals, a group whose children have left Jewish schools, Jewish life. They are now distant from any community activity, exposed to assimilation and will be very difficult to reach out to in the future.

What are our choices? The only way out is to redouble the efforts being made. For Jews, this is not debatable. According to Maimonides, helping one another is the most vital precept because “it is the distinctive character trait of our forefather Abraham.”

The amount of aid should be sufficient to help the members of the community cover their most basic needs, while opening new opportunities to overcome their economic problems. Most heads of household commonly complain: “I don’t want charity, the only thing I ask is to have a job that allows me to feed my family.” Also, it is of paramount importance to fortify the Jewish educational system. An extra effort must be made in order to help every Jew overcome feelings of shame and to reintegrate him or herself into the Jewish community.

To that end, it will be necessary to strengthen the institutions that are already helping, and to increase the amount of international support. The American Jewish community and other communities in Latin America have been helping, but more needs to be done to change the ongoing course of the Argentinean community.

As this article was being written, the first cases of Jewish children taken to public hospitals because of malnutrition were made public. Every day there are families broken by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of poverty while the host of at-risk children wait for help at the edge of an abyss. The Jewish sources make clear that we cannot abandon or even delay this duty; as Hillel wrote: “If not now, when?”

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