Imagine: Tomorrow the economy collapses. The ATMs are empty, your savings are gone, and you have no work. The hospitals run out of medicine. Fifteen presidents take over the country over the course of five days.
This is exactly what happened in Argentina during its economic crisis in 2001.
“From one day to another, my husband has no more income,” said Viviana Bendersky. Bendersky’s husband worked in construction, but building in Argentina ceased altogether for six months.
“The Argentine money we had was impossible to be touched,” she said. “Bankrupt in Argentina is bankrupt, and gone is gone.”
Bendersky is the director of Baby Help and Voluntarios en Red, two social welfare organizations with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. She visited Seattle last week to meet with a small group of supporters at the home of Bill and Toby Donner, and with Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation, who has a relationship with the JDC and the Buenos Aires synagogue Adat Israel.
The JDC began assisting European refugees in Argentina in the 1940s. Before 2001, JDC social welfare programs serviced 4,000 clients. With the collapse of the economy, and with it the middle class, that number rose to 40,000.
“That was the start of JDC’s rapidly ramped-up engagement in Argentina…to deal with the collapse of the middle class,” said Michael Novick, the JDC’s executive director of strategic engagement.
After the collapse, “we realized that kids were not receiving their milk, no vaccinations, no medicine, so really our future was at risk,” said Bendersky. In 2003, Baby Help was established to provide food, medicine, and other necessities to children under 5 whose families fell below the poverty line. It also offered support to pregnant women, many of whom became single mothers as the financial downturn led to family breakdown. Free daycare allowed parents to return to work.
While the country has largely recovered, even a decade later “there are still poor families that can’t cover their basic needs,” said Bendersky. In 2012 alone, milk saw 100 percent inflation. The price of chicken rose 45 percent, and subway tickets close to 200 percent.
“The incomes of the jobs were nowhere near on a relative basis,” said Novick, and even families above the poverty line have trouble making ends meet.
Today, Baby Help serves around 600 vulnerable children, and offers services such as counseling and nutrition education to parents.
Most notable is Baby Help’s current daycare location, inside the LeDor VaDor senior citizens’ home in Buenos Aires.
“We’re not aware of any other nursing home in the world that has a wing dedicated to children ages 0 to 5,” said Novick. “You have to imagine the Kline Galland…the opportunities just from the point of view of lifting spirits and engagement of the elderly is just huge.”
Bendersky describes the children’s funny, natural interactions with their adoptive grandparents. “[One child] came and told me, ‘You know Matilda’s teeth are not hers? The dentist gave to her!’” she said. “I saw elders with Alzheimer’s that have contact with no one…[but] with the kids they connect.”
The children and elderly celebrate Jewish holidays together, including a weekly Kabbalat Shabbat that sees 200 children and family members, in addition to the elders.
Argentina’s Jewish community of approximately 225,000 has a high rate of affiliation with synagogues and Jewish Community Centers. (Novick explained that due to the Catholic nature of the country, the Jewish community did not assimilate the same way as in North America, but rather built its own institutions.) There are four JCCs in Buenos Aires, and 50-60 percent of kids attend Jewish schools. Synagogue Kabbalat Shabbat services may see 500-700 attendees every week.
Bendersky is proud of her babies. “My kids know the blessings from Shabbat and from the festivities better than any kid from the most expensive schools in Buenos Aires.”
While Baby Care is expensive to maintain, Bendersky said she is committed to providing the best services possible.
“I want good services for poor people,” she said. “Otherwise they will always know the same quality of facilities or places that they live.”
Bendersky shared the story of Luzmila, who a state social worker found with her mother, Romina, in a run-down boarding house in a dangerous neighborhood, when Luzmila was just two months old.
Romina had a troubled life and was homeless before becoming pregnant. The social worker set them up with the JDC, and Luzmila was accepted into Baby Care, where she receives food, clothes, a stroller and a cradle, as well as daycare. Furthermore, Romina discovered that her grandmother lives at LeDor VaDor, and now the elderly woman and her great-granddaughter have a relationship. Luzmila is now 2 years old.
“What is unique is not only her commitment to the work that she’s doing, but the creative aspect that she brings to her programming,” said Seattle host Toby Donner of Bendersky.
The Donners traveled with the JDC to Buenos Aires last March. “Viviana just has a way with people,” Donner said. “This program is so loving and so supportive.”
LeDor VaDor was built in 2007 with the JDC’s help to create a better living facility for Jewish seniors.
“It came to my mind, why not move the daycare to the elderly home and to make it an intergenerational project?” said Bendersky. “In the beginning, my bosses thought that I was completely crazy. They know already that I am crazy, but they also know that when I want something —”
“Having these children so intimately involved with the seniors is remarkable,” said Donner. “It’s a two way street. That’s what it’s about.”