Buenos Aires’ lockdown continues to bite, but some are thriving

  • JTABeunosAires
(JTA) Since 20 March, Argentina has imposed one of the world’s strictest COVID-19 quarantines, and its capital city, home to most of the country’s Jewish community, isn’t opening up anytime soon.
by JTA STAFF | Aug 27, 2020

Jewish schools and synagogues have been closed for five months, but so have most of the city’s industrial and commercial activities. It has led to a local economic crisis that’s affecting most of the city’s businesses, Jewish and non-Jewish. The first half of 2020 showed an inflation rate of about 20% and now the peso, the local currency, is quickly losing value. In January one needed 63 pesos to buy one dollar, now it’s more than 120 pesos.

In spite of the shutdown, the virus is still advancing in Argentina. The national health ministry reported a new high death record (283) in one day on 19 August. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 312 000 people have been infected with COVID-19, with 6 330 fatalities.

Frustration has boiled over in the Jewish community. Early on in the crisis, in March, members of an Orthodox congregation were arrested for trying to operate a mikvah, or ritual bath, and later a bride and groom were arrested at their own wedding for convening such a large gathering. One Orthodox rabbi recently commented that “Judaism in Argentina has reached a low point”.

For the first time ever, the normally widely-attended events commemorating the deadly Israel embassy and AMIA (Israeli-Argentine Mutual Association) Jewish centre bombings that took place in the city in the 1990s were broadcast online.

But there have been bright spots too, such as an agreement between the Orthodox community and the government on how to keep rituals going safely, and an operation that brought in nearly 100 Israel rabbis to certify a backlog of thousands of tons of kosher meat.

Here’s how some other local Jewish institutions are faring as the pandemic drags on.

Synagogues can reopen – slowly. Many have clamoured for the government to restart some recreational and economic activities, and since 18 July, the city has had a few gradual reopenings. Synagogues can open for 10 members at a time as long as masks are worn and sanitary protocol is followed.

But in spite of the new measures, many temples remain closed to the public and will continue to offer online services over the fear of the virus’ continued spread.

Leading conservative synagogues such as NCI Emanuel, Bet El, Bet Hillel, and Amijai will remain closed.

“The government and society are seeking some normalisation, but the risks still exist,” said Ariel Stofenmacher, 57, the rector of the Conservative Latin American Rabbinical seminary.

“The flexibility is motivated by economic needs – people are fed up. But we are still in the middle of winter, and without a vaccine. I won’t call the people to gather,” said Alejandro Avruj, 50, the rabbi of Amijai, which has put Kabbalat Shabbat services featuring prominent musicians online.

The Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement opened its institutions with the mandatory sanitary protocols in place. “We will open our temples to 10 people with strict measures of sanitisation and all the requirements of the government regulation to protect our people,” said Tzvi Grunblatt, 66, the general director of Argentina’s Chabad chapter.

Kosher food here – which has mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazi immigrant flavours with traditional Argentine meat – has become an attraction for Jewish tourists.

The local market for kosher food is worth about $25 million a year (R425 million), according to information provided by the city. The city has held a kosher festival since 2013, and 11 city hotels have kosher certification, with employees trained to help the kosher tourist.

Restaurants have been closed since 20 March, and many of them are struggling to survive, but some have surprisingly found an opportunity to grow. Brothers Leandro, 42, and Esteban Olsztajn, 44, opened a kosher deli three years ago in the heart of the Orthodox “El Once” neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, just between the Orthodox Toratenu school and the Maccabi Jewish community centre.

The “Oh brothers”, as they’re called, aimed to recreate some of the atmosphere of a Manhattan Jewish deli at their restaurant that bears their nickname, but they sell all kinds of Jewish food, kosher sushi, and other fusion food. After expanding their delivery service during the pandemic, they have tripled their sales.

When Esteban was asked why he thought that happened, he replied, “I believe in G-d, do you?”

Esteban is Orthodox, but his brother and business partner isn’t. He offered another explanation.

“After the shutdown, we started to receive orders from every corner of the city, and not just from our close neighbours,” Leandro told JTA.

The Buenos Aires Jewish community centre, called Sociedad Hebraica Argentina, is one of the city’s biggest Jewish hubs, home to youth sport leagues, classes, professional classes, adult programming, and more. It had to shift all of that online quickly, but it found another way to be useful.

Part of its 420 acre open-air site in Pilar, a city of 300 000 just outside of Buenos Aires, was turned into a temporary hospital. The municipality of Pilar ran the site, which had 230 beds available for COVID-19 patients. And this was just one example.

According to the Argentine Jewish umbrella organisation, DAIA, all of its 140 institutions across the country offered its facilities and volunteers to national and local governments to help with the crisis. They did so while undergoing an economic crisis of their own, as members have found it harder to pay for membership fees.

Like Hebraica, another well-known Jewish community centre is Hacoaj, a sports and cultural club with about 7 500 members in Tigre, a city in the north of Buenos Aires province (besides the city of Buenos Aires, which is the capital of the country, there are also a province with the same name). Hacoaj has organised an array of “at-home” activities and discounted membership by 20%. Some members have donated their discounts to help other members in greater need.

Buenos Aires is home to about 159 000 Jews, according to the 2018 World Jewish Population study by expert Sergio Della Pergola, giving Argentina the largest Jewish population in Latin America.

Local Jewish businessmen, artists, professionals, and creatives have been hit hard by the general slowdown and the strict prohibitions on social gatherings and events.

Among the event and show cancellations was the country’s 72nd Israel Independence Day celebration, organised by the Argentine Zionist Organization. The main attraction was going to be local klezmer band “La Kosher Nostra”, a group that started small in 2011 but now plays to thousands of fans at stadiums across the country. In 2016, the group played two shows to crowds of 10 000 in South Africa.

“To honour Israel, we recorded a video with the participation of more than 60 Argentinean artists,” Jonathan Strugo, 27, one of the creators of the band, told JTA.

Every week, the directors of the city’s largest Jewish schools such as Scholem Aleijem, ORT, Martin Buber, Tarbut, Beth, among others, have Zoom meetings to discuss the situation. Most of them have reduced their costs, but the financial crisis isn’t getting any easier.

Prior to the pandemic, the AMIA Jewish group fielded about 40 new requests every month for economic assistance. Since the quarantine was established, that figure jumped to more than 500 a month (an increase of 1 200%).

The office of AMIA that co-ordinates activities with communities all across the country, called Vaad Hakeilot, launched a platform that allows people to donate to different Jewish institutions.

A special section focused on education got mainstream media attention, and raised $400 000 (R6.7 million).

“The request for help has grown three times,” economist Miguel Kiguel, 66, the president of the Tzedaká Foundation, a non-government organisation focused on charity, explained in a recent interview. “There are lots of cases of people that had jobs, that had a social life, but since the lockdown, all those fundamental structures began to fall.”

Tzedaká has implemented an emergency programme called Guesher (“bridge” in Hebrew) to help Jewish families in Buenos Aires with temporary economic assistance to cover their basic needs such as food, health, and housing for a maximum period of six months.

Jonas Papier, 50, runs Motivarte, one of the world’s most-awarded photography schools. It has 2 000 students and has earned a record seven nominations for the World Photography Organisation’s Student Focus prize. A Motivarte student won the 2017 edition.

The school has entered into teaching agreements with Betzalel, the famed Israeli Academy of Arts and Design, and Papier has travelled to Israel several times to teach. In 2019, he took to the Tel Aviv streets to give his famous-at-home class on street photography in Spanish, Hebrew and English.

He had planned a 2020 edition in Tel Aviv with new projects to engage other Israeli institutions.

“We miss the trip to Israel. The school building is empty. Now I’m very busy transforming the whole concept of the school into a virtual platform,” Papier said. “The good news is that we are recovering our staff of teachers with some professionals that have taught here in the past and are now living in Europe and Israel.”

Over the past 16 years, the Buenos Aires Jewish film festival has debuted 250 movies by Israeli directors such as Yosef Shiloaj, Dan Wolman, Ayelet Bargur, Igaal Niddam, Ilan Heitne, David Volach, and Jorge Gurvich, and Americans Ann Coppel, Hilary Helstein, Adam Vardy, Gaylen Ross, and Adam Zucker.

The creator of the festival, Luis Gutman, 73, told JTA that the devaluation of the peso made it difficult for him to buy the rights to movies to exhibit at the festival. For 16 years, the festival showed films at the Cinemark cinema chain for two weeks in November.

“Cinemark cannot assure yet whether cinemas will reopen this year, and it’s not profitable for me to purchase the rights of movies and exhibit them online, so if the cinema industry remains closed, I’m thinking that there won’t be a festival this year, and we will resume activities in 2021,” he said.

One thing is certain, though.

“[F]or sure, it won’t be an online festival,” Gutman said.


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