The Joy of Passover in Argentina


by S. Olidort - BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA

April 3, 2003

“Some 7,500 Jews will celebrate Passover in Argentina this year,” says Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Argentina, which is organizing more communal Seders this year than ever before.

The economic crisis in Argentina has taken a steep toll on the Jewish community, and Rabbi Grunblatt, always a man with a mission, has been working on overdrive for two years straight. A native Argentinean, Grunblatt admits he doesn't know where the funds for his Passover program will come from. But he won't cut back. "When you are dealing with situations that are as critical as what we have here, lack of funds is no excuse."

He tells of finding Mrs. L, a young Jewish woman, living with her infant son in a tiny hole in the wall of a long corridor, with only a rag for a door. Her two daughters, ages six and eight were in a Christian foster home, their mother unable to tend to their most basic needs. "The economic crisis here has affected people's level of functioning to the point where many have lost their ability to operate on a day-to-day basis, and often even their will to live," says Grunblatt, who has witnessed enough tragedies in one year to fill a dense volume.

Chabad stepped in immediately, transferring the two girls to Chabad's foster home and their mother into a decent living space with the appropriate psychiatric care.

The L. family is one of thousands who have turned to Chabad of Argentina since the crisis began. "If we were to assume the burden of outreach programs only with guaranteed funding, we never would have never undertaken to help so many,” says Grunblatt.

The largest Jewish humanitarian aid provider in Argentina, Chabad has spent $3.5 million in the last year alone, on humanitarian aid and social welfare programs that include soup kitchens, food packages, free medical care, foster care and a host of other aid programs.

But it isn't just their physical welfare that Chabad is concerned with. "It's their morale, and the joy of life that we want to restore to them," says Grunblatt, who saw greater numbers than ever turning out for this year's Chanukah and Purim celebrations nationwide. "There's a joy to Jewish life that every Jew must experience," a joy that will undoubtedly be pervasive at the 60 communal Seders hosted by Chabad, throughout Argentina.

It's a huge commitment, says Gruenblatt, who is grateful for the support of the Jewish Distribution Committee, which will cover ten percent of the entire cost. That leaves the project still short of adequate funding, but Grunblatt, who has appealed to Jewish sources outside of Argentina for support, is optimistic. "This is especially important now when people who were never really involved with anything Jewish turn inwards and look to reconnect, spiritually.”

Grunblatt points to an unusual phenomenon to underscore his point. "Since December we've celebrated on average one circumcision a week among older boys and men who are trying to reestablish their Jewish identity during this time of crisis."

Ushuaia is a city on Argentina's southernmost tip, with a Jewish population of five families. This year they'll be among some 2,500 Jews, many from similarly remote cities and towns, to receive Passover kits. And Chabad will distribute Passover Matzot, wine, and festive foods to thousands of needy Jews.

"You can never know what the impact of even the smallest kindness to one person, may be," says Grunblatt.

He recalls that 30 years ago, Rabbi Berel Baumgarten, Chabad's first emissary to Argentina, traveled to the western city of Mendoza, to meet with someone. While walking the streets of this city, home to a sparse Jewish population, a young boy approached him and asked that the Rabbi come home with him. On his arrival, the child's parents lost no time telling him of their son's commitment to Judaism, and of how he had conducted their Passover seder. "But how?" asked Baumgarten, incredulously. There were so few Jews in Mendoza, it seemed unlikely anyone would know how to conduct a Passover seder. The boy pointed to a copy of Talks and Tales, a Jewish newsletter published by Baumgarten and Chabad of Argentina. Somehow the magazine had made its way to Mendoza, and a child had used it to celebrate Passover with his family in this city so remote from Jewish life.

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