Wanted: Jews for the Diaspora - Israelis Need Not Apply

A new type of advertisement can be found in recent months in newsletters and newspapers published by Argentina's Jewish community, which appeared with the country's harsh economic crisis. All of a sudden, the country's 200,000 Jews have been on the receiving end of some very enticing offers.

A new type of advertisement can be found in recent months in newsletters and newspapers published by Argentina's Jewish community, which appeared with the country's harsh economic crisis. All of a sudden, the country's 200,000 Jews have been on the receiving end of some very enticing offers.

Long columns filled with advertisements placed by Jewish communities worldwide appear in newspapers such as La Voz de Israel (Voice of Israel) and Comunidades (Communities), calling on the Jews to join their communities. Although they have no control over immigration and naturalization policies in their home countries, nearly all of the communities offer a basket of absorption services, including assistance in finding a job and a place to live, and even free tuition at local Jewish schools during their first year.

Acceptance conditions vary, but there is almost always at least one undeviating stipulation: the new immigrants have to take an active part in the communal life of their new community. Although the Jewish communities are interested in offering vital help to the Jews of Argentina, when all is said and done, their main objective is ensuring their own survival.

The advertisements aimed at would-be Jewish immigrants are not unlike personal ads. Communities with deep pockets place large, detailed ads. For instance, the community in Basel, Switzerland, offers "support for Jewish families and singles who are interested in living and working in a safe, prosperous and beautiful part of the world." Communities in ostensibly less desirable countries are a bit more reserved. Costa Rica's Jewish community, for example, sufficed with an advertisement that read: "Costa Rica. Residence," followed by a phone number for information.

In the meantime, the editor of La Voz de Israel, Daniel Schnitman, says the ads continue to arrive with no end in sight.

200 Jewish families in Quito

The common denominator linking the Jewish communities of Basel, Santiago de Chile, Dublin and Quito, among others, is the fear of extinction. In the past few years, European communities have contended with a serious problem of assimilation, whereas the vitality of Jewish communities in Latin America has been sapped by the increased rate of emigration to North America.

In that respect, the economic crisis in Argentina - which burst out in November when the International Monetary Fund declared its intent not to issue further loans to the country - is a potential lifesaver for moribund communities in other countries. Argentine Jews are well known for the excellence of their communal educational institutions. So the middle class that was hit hard by the economic recession have thus become ideal candidates for resuscitating failing communities in the Diaspora.

The small community of Quito, Ecuador's capital, was established by European refugees at the time of World War II. Their descendants have assimilated into the general population or migrated to regions with larger Jewish communities, and only 200 or so Jewish families remain in Quito. About 500 pupils attend the Jewish school there, but only about 10 percent of those are Jews. This explains why one of the prerequisites for absorption into this community is having school-age children.

Psychologist Nora Sigal de Eliscovich, 42, chairs the immigration committee for Quito's Jewish community. Eliscovich herself is Argentine-born and moved to Ecuador with her husband 12 years ago. "We see what is going on in Argentina, and we want to help," she says. "In addition, we want to bring new people into the community, which is growing continually weaker, primarily because the young people go to the United States for college and don't come back."

Despite the situation, not all of the Jews of Quito are pleased by the initiative. Some members of the local community opposed the committee's activities, on the grounds that new immigrants might compete with them in Quito's tight employment market. Eliscovich says the opposition is insignificant. Quito is particularly well suited, she says, to people for whom "it is not important to live in the First World, for people looking for an underdeveloped country like Argentina, because they wouldn't know how to manage someplace else. It is obvious to us that the top option is Israel, but not everyone can handle it."

Rabbi-cum-travel agent

Ruben Saferstein, rabbi of the Dor Hadash (New Generation) congregation in Buenos Aires, receives an endless train of emails from Jewish communities around the world, including communities in Canada, Panama, Switzerland, New Zealand, Mexico and Australia, requesting that he use his good offices to mediate between them and Jews who want to leave Argentina.

Saferstein, a lifelong Zionist who speaks fluent Hebrew, tries to direct his congregants in the direction of Israel. He doesn't always succeed. "I am completely devoted to Israel," he says, "but if someone comes to me asking for information about Canada, and I know that he is unemployed and suffering, and I have that information, I'll help him. It's a humanitarian question. People have begun to think that I am a travel agent. If they want Canada - then okay, Canada. But I ask them, `Do you have time? Do you have money? Because if you are lucky, it will cost you and it will take at least a year before you see Canada.'"

Compared to making aliyah to Israel, emigration to other countries is a complicated affair. Israel grants full citizenship rights to every immigrant upon arrival. Members of other Jewish communities, none of which are sovereign entities, in general cannot so much as even guarantee an entry visa for someone wishing to visit and get to know the local conditions.

The Jewish community of Milan expressed an interest in Latin American Jews two years ago, when it became clear that due to assimilation and emigration the number of Jews in Italy was steadily diminishing. Rachel Zelon, vice president of HIAS, the New York-based Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, responded to a request from the president of the Italian Jewish community by saying she could not invent immigrants. Argentina's economic situation was relatively stable at the time, but since last November, Zelon has had her hands full. Ten Jews have already arrived in Italy thanks to her intervention, and 20 more await the special visas available to them. Those already in Italy arrived on their own and will have to find steady work within a year if they want to remain there and bring their families. "It isn't so bad," says Zelon. "It's exactly what my great-grandfather did when he came to the United States. He established himself, and only afterward brought over the family, one at a time."

Israelis don't contribute

Another option open to Argentinian Jews is Ireland. The country has only about 80 Jewish families, who are clustered in Dublin, the capital, and in the southwestern city of Cork. As in Ecuador, the assimilating and aging community is looking for immigrants to infuse it with new life. Until last year, the immigrant absorption committee that was established by the Irish Jewish community focused its efforts on Jews from South Africa. It has now targeted the Argentinians.

No Argentine families have move to Ireland so far, although, based on the volume of traffic to the community's Web site, there is much interest. The head of the immigration committee, Carl Nelkin, explains that the first move is "to help them find work. If they don't have work, they can't come. It's that simple. HIAS is willing to pay for the expenses of the relocation itself. If they come that way, through the ordinary channels, we are happy to introduce them to an Irish family and help them settle in, grant them free tuition in Jewish schools and membership in the Jewish community during their first year."

The Irish community, like the Argentinian, has an illustrious past of Zionist education and Hebrew studies. The community's Web site has been fielding numerous inquiries, including some from Israelis interested in a change of venue. There is high demand for high-tech professionals in Ireland, which has the highest rate of economic growth in Europe. "We received a great deal of inquiries from Israel, primarily from computer professionals, but I turn them all down," reports Nelkin. "I tell them that I am not in the business of encouraging yerida (emigration from Israel). Sometimes people get angry. One Israeli told me that I can't dictate to people where they can or cannot live."

Israelis, as opposed to Jews from the rest of the world, do not usually strike roots in the Jewish communities of the cities to which they migrate. By and large, they do not even enroll their children in the Jewish schools. "A lot of Israelis have come to live here. They're secular. They don't contribute a thing to the community," says Nelkin. "If they would only support our schools, our problems would practically disappear. They're not part of the community at all."

The need to preserve the Jewish communities in the Diaspora seems obvious to all parties, even if they are avowed Zionists. Nora Sigal de Eliscovich, head of the absorption committee in Quito, calls it a survival instinct. "There is a fundamental concept," she says, "that says, `first let's do; only then we'll think' - I say this as a Jew, not as a psychologist. The main motivation behind this campaign is the desire to move forward as a community."

However, concerns about extinction of communities is not exclusive to Jews. In Quebec, for instance, descendants of the French immigrants who founded the settlement are afraid of losing their unique culture. Provincial authorities therefore give high priority to French-speaking would-be immigrants when submitting recommendations for entry visas to the federal government. Thus, French-speaking Jews - including those residing in Argentina - are allowed to settle in Quebec as revivers of French-Catholic culture.

In the meantime, Israel has not come up with any creative solutions to the problem of the Diaspora communities - the Zionist movement did not give much consideration to their fate after the establishment of the State of Israel. "A combination of historical circumstances led to the widespread dispersion of the Jewish people," says Yaakov Shavit, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the Zionist movement. "Some people like the place where they live, and aren't about to move. But the statistical data on the growth of Jewish communities shows unmistakeable movement toward Israel."

Israel has budgeted an unusually generous "absorption basket" for new immigrants from Argentina, approximately $70,000 for a family of four. So far, 1,700 new immigrants have arrived in 2002, 300 people more than all the Argentine immigration to Israel in 2001. The Jewish Agency estimates at least 5,000 will arrive by the end of the year. The only group that does not qualify for Jewish Agency assistance is made up of former Israelis - Argentinians who immigrated to Israel and eventually returned to Argentina.

Eli Yitzhaki, a former head of the Jewish Agency's immigration delegation in Buenos Aeries, assesses that over 10,000 former olim (immigrants to Israel) currently live in Argentina. "Hundreds upon hundreds of them are calling us, asking if they qualify for assistance in going back to Israel," he says. Most of them, Yitzhaki says, do not have the right to receive any assistance as they took advantage of whatever aid was available during their first immigrations. This means that he cannot help them "even if they are people who have lost everything, who requested a private meeting [with the immigration counselor] to avoid a humiliating encounter with their acquaintances."