A Beeline From Argentina to the Honey Pot of Kiryat Bialik

From the socio-economic point of view, Mario and Georgina Kaminsky of Buenos Aires were considered a well-off couple.

From the socio-economic point of view, Mario and Georgina Kaminsky of Buenos Aires were considered a well-off couple. He is a 37-year-old lawyer who worked in an attorney's office. His wife's job was considered even more prestigious: she had a senior position in a large travel agency situated in one of the most elegant areas of the Argentinian capital - the American embassy was one of its clients.

Like thousands of other Argentinians, Jews and non-Jews alike, they felt that the economic, social and cultural crisis in their country over the past two years was making the Argentine "a place without a future."

About a year ago, they decided, like tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen, to emigrate. Eight months ago, with their little daughter, they arrived in Kiryat Bialik. Advocate Kaminsky is today washing dishes in a Kiryat Motzkin restaurant and, once a week, he supplements his income by working a night shift at a local press. His wife is studying Hebrew at an ulpan and has not yet managed to find work. They are convinced, they say, they made the right move.

Rachel Cohen also had a prestigious job in the Argentine. A psychologist by profession, she worked in an administrative capacity in a psychoanalytic institute in Buenos Aires and was also active in a Conservative synagogue there. "I had a good life in the Argentine," she said this week, "but there was no future there for my daughter." Cohen decided to immigrate to Israel with her daughter, Maria Eva, when she finished studying at a Jewish elementary school two years ago. Today the girl is studying at a junior-high school in Kiryat Bialik, has adjusted well and feels Israeli in all respects. Cohen believes that she took the right step in coming here even though she has not yet found work in Kiryat Bialik. The two are living off National Insurance Institute payments.

Liliana and Mario Brukman were also well-off in their native country. He worked for the income tax authorities in Tucuman, in northwest Argentina, and supplemented his family's income by driving passengers around in his minibus. Even though they feel that they had "a higher standard of living than today in Kiryat Bialik," they are convinced that they did not make a mistake coming here.

"The reason for our aliyah is Gabi," says Liliana. Gabi is the youngest of their three children and, since his birth nine years ago, he has suffered from a developmental defect. They heard of Kiryat Bialik for the first time in their lives in 1997 when the town's mayor, Danny Zack, came to Tucuman to look for Jews who were interested in moving there. Brukman took him around all the time in his van. "The mayor promised us that if we came to Kiryat Bialik, he would help us to take care of Gabi, and he has kept all his promises," Liliana says.

The family has been in Kiryat Bialik for four years now. Mario bought a taxi, joined a large taxi firm in the area, and is succeeding in supporting the five members of his family quite comfortably. Liliana is not working. Recently they left the apartment they had rented on arrival and moved into their own home, which they bought with the aid of a loan. Gabi is getting treatment and his parents say he has made remarkable progress. His oldest brother has completed high school and is planning to go to the army.

The Kaminsky, Cohen and Brukman families are just three of the 160 Jewish families from the Argentine who have come to Kiryat Bialik over the past four years. It is not by chance that they have gone to this small, sleepy spot which borders on the industrial areas north of Haifa. Their arrival is the fruit of years of labor on the part of the Kiryat Bialik Municipality and the Conservative movement in Israel. Together the two conceived of the "Kiryat Bialik project." The number of Israelis who have heard of this project is far smaller than the number of Argentinians. Even the non-Jewish press in the Argentine has published quite a few articles about it.

A meeting of prospective candidates for aliyah, with representatives of the project who came to Buenos Aires specially three weeks ago, drew almost 500 participants. The collapse of the Argentinian economy and social fabric make Kiryat Bialik an attractive place to start a new life, at least in the eyes of some of the Argentinian Jews. A plane that landed yesterday at Ben-Gurion Airport brought another four such families, who headed straight for Kiryat Bialik.

The immigrants say that the reason they chose Kiryat Bialik was the feeling that the town's representatives gave them, that an entire community was ready to receive them. This feeling, which is not false, is due to a large extent to the efforts of Rabbi Mauricio Balter, the life and soul of the project.

Balter, trained by the Conservative movement, immigrated to Israel in 1995 in order to serve as his movement's rabbi in Kiryat Bialik. An extremely charismatic personality, Balter has a large following among the Argentinian Jews. Prior to his aliyah, he was the rabbi of the largest Conservative congregation in Buenos Aires. With the aid of the Kiryat Bialik Municipality, which he succeeded in harnessing to his project, Balter is able to persuade the Jews of the Argentine that the town is longing for them to come live there.

Most of those who come to Kiryat Bialik join the Conservative movement, which assists them in every aspect of life. It starts the day they touch down at the airport; representatives of the municipality and the community are waiting to put them and their suitcases on a municipal van that takes them directly to Kiryat Yam. There the Jewish Agency has put an absorption center at the project's disposal.

The following morning, representatives of the project are on hand to help them make arrangements at the bank, health maintenance organization (HMO), the Absorption Ministry and at the municipality which undertook, even before they left the Argentine, to pay for their children's first year of schooling.

Their stay at the absorption center is free but they have to leave after two weeks. During this time, and with the aid of people from the project, they have to look for an apartment to rent from the money that the government provides in the form of an absorption basket. When they find a suitable apartment, they take the contract to the municipality's legal adviser who looks it over without any charge and makes sure they are not being cheated.

Most of the apartments for rent are not furnished but almost all the immigrants get basic furniture. Balter says that the project is so popular that, when residents of Kiryat Bialik buy new furniture, they donate their old pieces to the immigrants. The municipality has opened a special storehouse for this. No wonder the new immigrant has a feeling he or she is really wanted.

After renting an apartment, the really difficult stage begins - finding work. Representatives of the municipality, who are careful not to make promises about this when they go to the Argentine, help in a way reminiscent of the old Mapai Party tactics. A contractor, who is building a commercial center and needs favors from the municipality, was asked by the mayor to take on new immigrants as night watchmen; a municipal councillor who is also a director of the Co-op supermarket, heard hints from senior officials of how important it was to employ new immigrants from the Argentine as cleaning women; some of the immigrants are temporarily employed by the municipality itself.

According to Balter's statistics, more than 90 percent of the immigrants who came before December 2000, and about 67 percent of those who have come since, have found work. Most of them are employed at minimum wage but most of them, still influenced by the situation in the Argentine, are satisfied.

"Minimum wage in Israel is sufficient for me to support my entire family and to pay the rent, with the assistance of the absorption basket," says Kaminsky, who works washing dishes. "In the Argentine, the minimum wage is barely enough to travel to work and back." But Kaminsky does not yet know how he will pay his rent when his absorption basket supplement runs out in a few months.

The Conservative movement, the main moving force behind the project, has a strong and overt interest in promoting the project. The community in the Haifa Bay area, which prior to Balter's arrival consisted of less than 30 families, now has more than 200 families. Not all those who attend the services are immigrants from the Argentine and not all the immigrants attend services but the project - which the movement gives prominence to in all its publications - boosts its image considerably and thus furthers its aims.

The municipality's interest in the project is less overt but no less strong. The veteran town, which was founded in 1934 and now has 40,000 residents, has suffered over the last decade from several troubles that are worrisome to the city fathers. Because of its location, Kiryat Bialik cannot offer the residents private homes with beautiful scenery and therefore cannot hold its own against the communities in Galilee only a few dozen kilometers away.

Young people from the Bay area tend to move to these communities and other young people are not attracted in their place. The result is a gradually aging population.

The trend was somewhat balanced by the arrival in the last decade of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the municipality hopes that the Argentinian immigration will help balance this further. One of the senior city officials was prepared this week to speak of another "contribution" from the Argentinian immigrants. "The Argentinian immigrants are prepared to do any work, including the dirty work," he said. "Thanks to them, we have managed to make do with fewer Arabs."

Balter, whose point of view does not include racist tendencies, sees the main importance of the project in that it "lends a helping hand to a Jewish community that is in deep distress." Balter believes the project has already reaped success. All the other absorption authorities say it is indeed a successful project but some of them raise questions about the way it is run and the ratio of input into the program to its benefits.

There are people in the Jewish Agency and the organization of immigrants from Latin American countries, for example, who criticize the heads of the project for "selecting" the immigrants with too much of a fine comb. "They are not prepared to take just anybody," say the detractors, "only those who are suitable. The especially difficult cases, those that need massive help from the welfare authorities, therefore end up in places like Kiryat Gat or Be'er Sheva."

"Our criteria are clear as daylight," the Kiryat Bialik people respond. "We take mainly families with children because our educational system is known for its high standards. But it is not right to say we choose only the good and the strong. Some of the people have come from very distressed backgrounds. There are also other kinds of cases. A TV director who wanted to come here, was told he would be better off in the center of the country. A bank manager married to a school principal, who said they each earn $10,000 a month, was advised to think twice about coming to Israel."

The project's representatives, who have managed to go six times to the Argentine in the past four years, have met thousands of Jews there and interviewed some 700 families. Only 160 of them - about 577 people - have so far come to Kiryat Bialik. Eight families have left the country and 36 have moved elsewhere in Israel. That means that only 116 families have stayed in Kiryat Bialik.

Do these 116 families warrant such a large investment on the part of the municipality, including six trips to the other end of the world by delegations in which almost all the members of the municipal council participated?

Zack doesn't like this question and prefers a more ideological, rather than practical, response. "The Jews of the Argentine," he says, "are in distress and danger. We have taken upon ourselves the task of trying to save them."