The Governor of Tucuman province and top level ORT International leaders gathered last week to inaugurate a new school of technology and Jewish studies center, a joint project of Chabad and ORT, an educational charity with vocational schools around the world. A ribbon cutting ceremony followed by shofar blasts heralded the new era of vocational training and Torah learning that will help the smallest Argentinian province finally turn the corner from desperate straits of the country’s 2001 economic collapse.
Technology training and Torah teaching will go hand in hand at the new center. After students click and conquer the mysteries of computer science and receive real-world job skills in the lab guided by ORT International teachers, they’ll delve into Torah teachings in classes led by Chabad educators. Flat screen monitors – powered by brand new computers – gleam in the lab’s two classrooms accommodating 45 students. Lectures on Jewish subjects will be taught in cozy study halls adjacent to the labs. “Our goal is to give students of every age the training they need to get better jobs and to teach them that success in life can go together with being a Torah Jew,” said Chabad of Tucuman’s representative Rabbi Daniel Levy.
Chabad of Tucuman, situated 600 miles north of Buenos Aires, organized a full day of festivities to fete the completion of the new computer science laboratory and classrooms. Governor Jose Alperovitch, the province’s first Jewish governor, met with the chief Chabad representative Rabbi Tzvi Grunblatt, Chabad rabbis and ORT dignitaries before the festivities. During the meeting, Rabbi Grunblatt remarked that education must be more than about transmitting information; it must be about the formation of a person’s ethics.
To that end, the partnership of Chabad and ORT is a good match, said Rabbi Levy. “ORT is known around the world for providing material training, and Chabad is the expert at providing spiritual guidance.” Although ORT has had training programs in Argentina since 1941, this is the first ORT Argentina program offered jointly with a religious organization. The model for the Tucuman project is the ORT and Chabad school in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, which was funded by Eduardo and Leticia Azar. The Azars, who relocated from Argentina to London, are the chief financial backers of the Tucuman school.
“We have IT and property business interests in Argentina and Ukraine, so we want to be able to put back into the communities there some of what we earn,” Mr Azar said. “My wife and I are active in providing food aid in Tucuman and other places in Argentina, but the philosophy behind this project is that if you can give people a good education that will enable them to get work then they won’t need food aid because they’ll be able to buy it themselves. Giving someone work is the best charity we can do.”
On hand for the ribbon cutting and banquet luncheon were World ORT Director General Robert Singer, Chairman of World ORT’s Executive Committee Mauricio Merikanskas, and ORT Argentina National Director Baruj Zaidenknop along with 200 of Tucuman’s 3,500 Jewish community members. Governor Alperovitch proclaimed Merikanskas a special guest of honor in recognition of ORT’s work in Tucuman.
Publicity build up before the event and headlines in Tucuman’s La Gaceta newspaper made Chabad’s phones ring off the hook with potential students wishing to enroll in the new school. When the school opens in a few weeks, every seat should be filled even though the first semester will run only until December and break for the southern hemisphere’s summer holidays in January. Abbreviated first semester classes will give the new school time to weed out any kinks before the true full semester begins in sync with all other Argentine schools in March.
Classes will be held in basic computer usage to help workers upgrade their skills, and on the university level, providing career choices that will give younger people a reason to stay in the country. It’s a move aimed at staunching the flow of emigration that started after the 1998 banking collapse that spiraled into an economic emergency in 2001. Back then the first thoughts of a computer-training center were sketched as a way to help Jewish families recover from the crunch that caused 70% of Jewish businesses in Argentina to close. But before any dreams of computer labs could be nursed, Chabad of Argentina dealt with the emergency at hand. Food, medicine, shelter, emergency grants were offered to the once upper- and middle-class community that was shattered by the banking failure that also drained the local Chabad centers of 80% of their local funding. Chabad’s humanitarian organization, the Machne Israel Development Fund at Lubavitch Headquarters, founded the Argentina Relief Commission in support of soup kitchens and foster care provision, among other vital services provided in Chabad of Argentina’s 12 relief centers. The project required an infusion of $450,000 per month.
A stroll through Tucuman’s downtown reveals scars from the crisis. Stores are shuttered. Street vendors, able to operate without major rent and overhead expenses, abound. Rabbi Levy said the situation is better than it once was, but the Tucuman Chabad community kitchen still serves 120 people each day and sends out monthly food and medicine packages – in conjunction with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – to 800 Jewish people.
Chabad’s new computer labs will offer Tucuman’s Jewish community a boost both materially and spiritually, said Rabbi Levy, “to give them better choices in life, and that is the best way to honor the legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”