Group Helps Brazilian Jews Find Jobs, Health Care and Self-respect

Jamila Ejnesman of Rio de Janeiro recently got a job as a secretary. Her $190 monthly salary replaced the $190 monthly pension her ex-husband stopped giving her in February, when their divorce was finalized. Financially speaking, it’s fair to say that Ejnesman, 50, is back at square one. But she says she’s now an independent woman, and credits Voluntarios da Alianca, or Alliance Volunteers, a Rio-based Jewish social outreach program, with finding her job and restoring her self-esteem.

“Though I and my two youngest kids still live on the same meager income, it’s income I earn, not money doled out by my now ex-husband,” Ejnesman said. “I have Voluntarios da Alianca to thank for getting me the job that allowed me to live independently and with a greater self of self worth. I feel better about myself because I feel useful again.” Ejnesman is one of 36 Jews whom Voluntarios da Alianca has placed in jobs since the organization began in 2000. That number isn’t high, in part because V.A.’s main focus has been on finding health care for needy patients. But the organization expects to find jobs for 200 more of Rio’s Jews this year, now that the economy is reviving and people are being hired, not fired. V.A. was created when Brazil’s economy deteriorated in the mid-1990s, a slump that extended through 2003.

But increased macroeconomic stability, along with the new government’s growth-oriented industrial and developmental policies, helped the economy grow by 4 percent in 2004. A similar or higher rate of growth is expected this year. The stagnating economy was particularly hard on the country’s small middle class, which included members of Rio de Janeiro’s Jewish community. By the late 1990s, many of them had lost jobs or taken salary cuts, canceled health insurance coverage, transferred their children from private Jewish schools to free public ones, canceled memberships to Jewish clubs and synagogues and sold personal assets to offset income loss. In 2000, Sami Goldstein, a retired IBM executive, founded V.A. by organizing a group of Jewish volunteers from 12 Rio synagogues and social clubs. Their mission was to help provide the growing ranks of unemployed, increasingly impoverished Jews with health care and employment opportunities.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped provide V.A. with startup and assistance capital during its first three years of operation. “I started V.A. because I was confronted with the problem of the growing impoverishment of Rio’s Jewish middle class, and felt something needed to be done,” Goldstein said. “And since I’ve always been a Jewish community leader, I embraced the cause.” The group has 44 volunteers, most of them retired women. They interview unemployed people in synagogues and pass their resumes and job applications on to the local chapter of B’nai B’rith, which tries to place them in jobs, mainly in Jewish-run businesses. V.A. also matches people needing medical care with doctors; there are 142 Jewish doctors who volunteer their services. Lise Barochel, 66, a retired multilingual secretary, became a V.A. volunteer in 2000. “It’s gratifying to be able to interview someone urgently in need of medical help, make a phone call to B’nai B’rith and then, on the spot, tell them they’ve got a doctor’s appointment sometime that same day,” she said. So far, V.A. has helped more than 2,500 people receive free medical care. The doctors are satisfied because once the patients’ economic problems end, some of them become paying patients.

Families, grateful for the VA’s help, have begun returning to Jewish congregations, whose membership is increasing. Mirian Wertman, 44, an unemployed teacher who did not have health insurance, went to V.A. in 2004 because she had a breast cyst she feared might be malignant. Free gynecological and radiological exams showed it was benign. “I’m so grateful to the gynecologist who treated me that when I get a job I will return to her as a paying patient,” Wertman said. “And I heard about V.A. at my synagogue, which reinforces its importance in my life.” V.A. helped Gracia Mizrahi, 77, a widow living on a $100 monthly pension, to get free physiotherapy after she fell earlier this year and injured her knee and hands.

“Thank God my daughter, a rabbi’s secretary, knew about V.A. and advised me to go there for medical help,” Mizrahi said. “Because I didn’t have a health plan, I could not have otherwise afforded physiotherapy.” Though the V.A.’s greatest success so far has been in providing medical care, it plans to increase its efforts to find people jobs. Not only does the organization hope to find work for 200 people in 2005, it’s offering an 18-month night course in electronics to unemployed Jews. The course teaches high-school graduates how to maintain and repair cellular phones, home computers and more sophisticated electronic equipment. The local arm of ORT, a London-based network of technical and vocational schools, will run the program. B’nai B’rith, together with ORT, is giving participants scholarships; some will cover the full amount of tuition. “The course is geared for high-school graduates who don’t have professional degrees or skills that the market needs,” said Hugo Malajovich, national director of ORT Brasil. “It will help people to reenter the market by providing them with skills that the market needs.” V.A. also will offer Jewish parents help with day school payments. The money is expected to come from a fund-raising drive within the local community. Negotiations aimed at receiving matching funds from an unnamed U.S. institution reportedly are under way as well.

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