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As Argentine riots intensified,
Jews wondered about the future

December 27, 2001


By: Florencia Arbiser


BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 27 (JTA) - Edgardo Fejgelis and Martin Esses live just a few blocks from each other, but it is only their shared interest in leaving Argentina for Israel that will finally bring them face to face.

Fejgelis and Esses are two of an increasing number of Argentine Jews who have been calling the Jewish Agency for Israel since riots erupted in Buenos Aires earlier this month, leading to the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua.

Fejgelis and Esses are both scheduled to attend an information session at the Jewish Agency on Jan. 16.

They won't be alone - Jewish Agency officials in Buenos Aires said that, in recent weeks, they have received 300 percent more telephone inquiries and personal interviews for aliyah and 30 percent more inquiries from parents wondering about sending their children to university in Israel.

Fejgelis, 50, a salesman, and his wife, Elisa, a 52-year-old doctor, live in a three-room apartment at the heart of Villa Crespo, a neighborhood with many Jewish residents.

"Last week's episodes are what sparked my desire to emigrate," Fejgelis said.

On the night of Dec. 19 - when protestors took to the streets banging saucepans - "I looked through the window and saw clearly the result of so much anguish and heartache," he said. "I thought about what life had in store for my two children. If these protests started with saucepans and ended with more than 25 people dead, what can happen next time - a civil war?"

Since the Fejgelises met 30 years ago, they often had thought of living outside Buenos Aires. They made inquiries about moving to the Argentine provinces, or perhaps to Canada, Australia, Mexico or Venezuela. 

Last Friday morning, Fejgelis was selling pharmaceutical supplies  outside Buenos Aires. While drinking coffee at a gas station, he read in the newspaper about special benefits the Israeli government is making available to entice Argentine Jews to immigrate.

Israel approved a special benefits package that includes $20,000 in government assistance to purchase housing and a $2,500 Jewish Agency absorption grant, on top of the existing benefits package all new immigrants receive.

Edgardo ran to his car to get his reading glasses.

"This is my chance," he told himself, and went back home to speak with his wife.

That same day, Fejgelis called AMIA, Argentina's central Jewish organization, and asked how he could contact the Jewish Agency.

"I was so anxious that I feel Jan. 16 is too far away," Fejgelis says, peering over a small pair of glasses perched on his nose. "I always had part of my heart in Israel. I feel this can be our chance. And I still have to wait 20 days to see what it's all about."

Elisa Fejgelis - who works at the Argentine League for Welfare Medicine - is more skeptical.

"Israel does not seem the ideal place for me to live. Hebrew is impossible to learn," she says. "And I know my daughter" - Tamara, the only member of the family who has been to Israel - "would not come. I am a 'Yiddishe mama' and it is too hard for me to think of living far away from Tamara," or Diego, the couple's son.

Edgardo Fejgelis is in the midst of a lawsuit against a laboratory that closed without paying him any compensation. He is broke, and wondering how to pay his debts.

Elisa has about $7 in her bag and a measly salary check that she can't cash in any bank because of restrictions imposed since the riots.

"It might sound weird, but thinking of my family and me in 10 years time in Israel brings me a feeling of peace," Edgardo Fejgelis said.

Esses, a 23-year-old who makes women's clothing, has a similar feeling.

Last month, Esses traveled to Israel for the first time. He, his wife Romina and their baby visited his in-laws in Ra'anana, who moved to Israel a year and a half ago.

"I am not worried about the war. Life in that place seemed to be peaceful. It is not what TV shows here," Esses told JTA. "I am more worried about the impotence you feel in this country. After last week's riots, I keep wondering what kind of future my loved ones have here. 

"It might be hard to separate from my family," he said. "But I have formed my own family now, and I need to think for our projects."

Esses was so depressed after the economic and social collapse that on Christmas Eve he went to the Jewish Agency office with his uncle, Jose Mauas.

The two had not called first to arrange an interview, and - because of security regulations implemented after terror bombings against two Argentine Jewish institutions in the 1990s - they were not allowed into
the building.

Esses and Mauas went back home and called the Agency office, which signed them up for the Jan. 16 informational meeting. 

Mauas too was shaken by the riots that broke out over Argentina's economic meltdown and escalated to street battles between police and protestors.

On the night of Dec. 19, after de la Rua gave a televised speech, Mauas left his apartment to go to the street.

"I identified with the families in the street, protesting with saucepans. I kept walking. I arrived at Plaza de Mayo - in front of the pink national government house - and stayed there until 2:30," Mauas told JTA.

He, too, considered what kind of future the country offered his wife, Maria Rosa, 50, and his daughters Daiana, 7, and Jennifer, 17.

"I walked and thought how tired I was of being treated as a second-class citizen, not allowed to deal with my money in the banks, with the money I earn with my sacrifice," he said. "When the police started to suppress us on Plaza de Mayo with gas, I felt that the old repression was being revived."

Mauas, who both manufactures and sells women's clothing, found his doubts intensifying as the crisis progressed.

"I felt I have to close my shop and escape, as if I were a criminal, to avoid the looting. I couldn't stand it. I felt we were not far from having anti-Semitic demonstrations," he said.

"Over the past weekend I thought to myself: I am a Jew; what country could give, protect and respect me?" he asked. "I want the state to give to me as I give, and in Argentina it's not possible."

Mauas and his wife decided to try life in Israel.

"I know I am able to learn Hebrew," Mauas said. "And I can do any work, as long as I feel I'm getting a fair shake." 
 

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