Supporting Argentina’s At-Risk Jewish Communities
As president of the Jewish Community of Cordoba, Argentina, Sandra Werner once sought help from the very community she now leads.
October 6, 2021
Twenty years ago, Sandra Werner and her family were living comfortably in Argentina when the country suddenly experienced an historic economic collapse, causing her business to falter and her husband to lose his job.
In a flash, they went from secure middle class to struggling to pay their bills and afford basic necessities such as food, clothing, and medicine.
That’s when Sandra reached out to the Jewish Community of Cordoba, a city located 500 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, which was part of the welfare network set up by JDC and local partners to help the Argentine Jewish community, providing them with medical care, food boxes and vouchers, and giving Werner the tools she needed to get back on her feet.
JDC continues to help the most vulnerable Jewish populations in Latin America through direct assistance programs, while also working with local organizations to build and strengthen their own capacities.
Two decades after her hour of need, Werner is now the president of the Jewish welfare organization in Cordoba, home to Argentina’s second-largest Jewish population.
“I can’t stress how important that help was,” she said. “Now that I am president, I realize the kind of support JDC provides is absolutely essential.”
Along with our local partners — the Tzedaka Foundation, AMIA-the Buenos Aires Kehilah, and the Chabad Foundation — JDC launched a program to address the emerging needs of newly poor families, covering food, medicine, utilities, and rent payments to people facing pandemic-related financial challenges and who had never previously sought assistance from the Jewish community.
“We didn’t know if this was going to be 2001 all over again — if it would be better, if it would be worse,” said Sergio Widder, JDC’s regional director for Latin America. “As the situation unfolded, we came to understand the unique nature of this pandemic and the specific challenges that arose from it, and we quickly mobilized and worked with our partners to meet those needs.”
The JDC network helps families struggling with high inflation and increasing rates of unemployment, challenges that echo the devastation of 2001-2003.
Living in Mendoza with his wife and two young children, 39-year-old Maximiliano Leiva and his family struggled to make ends meet when the pandemic caused him to lose his job in the hospitality industry. The cost of daily living expenses for his young family soon became unmanageable as they quickly accumulated debt and their future became uncertain.
“The worst part was not knowing what will happen next,” he said. “Things were hard and what was the hardest — what pained me the most — was not knowing how long this situation would continue.”
Today, the network provides humanitarian support to about 1,000 Jewish families in Argentina — 600 in Buenos Aires and about 400 living in smaller communities like Leiva’s. In an effort to destigmatize welfare assistance, many families were reached through a partnership with local day schools, leading to a 40 percent increase in participation.
“We needed to meet them in a place where they felt comfortable,” Widder said.
And for Argentine Jews like Leiva, the impact of the assistance can’t be overstated.
“The pandemic wasn’t the start of our troubles — but it definitely pushed us over the edge,” he said. “I don’t like to think about how we’d get by without the welfare assistance. It’s really a huge help for us.”