BUENOS AIRES, Aug. 11 (JTA) -- At the beginning of the year, Adriana Faerman filled out every application at the local office of the Jewish Agency for Israel, planning to leave her native Argentina for Israel.
The painter, sculptor and photographer had decided that aliyah was the right move for her and her three children. But a few weeks ago, Faerman, 44, changed her mind. She decided to stay in Argentina.
She's not alone. A record 6,325 Argentine Jews made aliyah last year. More than 2,600 did so during the first half of the year.
But this year, only 485 made aliyah during the same period.
The reason, experts say, is the expectation that financial conditions may improve in Argentina, a country that may be emerging from nearly two years of economic free fall.
"In a country of immigrants, many did what their grandparents had done from despair: search for a better land," said Patricio Abramzon, a political scientist who is finishing a master's degree in international migration.
Abramzon also is a consultant to Jewish institutions and coordinator of workshops at the local office of the Argentine intelligence services.
"There is an opening and hope that things might improve." he said. "The psychosis is over."
Two months ago, Nestor Kirchner was elected Argentine president in democratic elections, a sign of stability. And official unemployment has fallen to 15.6 percent, down from 20 percent a few months ago.
Employment consulting companies say that demand for employees has risen by 30 percent to 50 percent.
The realities of day-to-day life are still tough. Nearly 55 percent of Argentines still live below the poverty line. But there are signs that things may be improving.
There no longer are lines of people who wish to emigrate in front of the Italian and Spanish consulates.
Some of the country's 200,000 Jews, mainly members of the middle class, are reopening their businesses.
The rate of aliyah, though decreasing, in fact is returning to the levels that existed before Argentina's economic crisis.
Until the crisis, approximately 1,000 people moved to Israel from Argentina each year. The only notable exception was during the 1960s, when the activities of an anti-Semitic group known as Tacuara helped push the number to more than 2,000 per year.
Though the numbers are falling as the economic crisis subsides, the Jewish Agency is not giving up, says Lalo Slepoy, who is in charge of aliyah from Latin America for the Jewish Agency.
With its database of potential immigrants growing from recent Israel fairs, the Jewish Agency is making 600 telephone calls to Jewish families each day, inviting them to different Israel-oriented activities: an Israel night, an evening of movie and discussion, a play about a family contemplating aliyah.
In addition, the agency is starting a program in September to provide four months of training in Hebrew language and specialized professional skills. Those who attend will receive a certificate and are expected to emigrate to Israel by the end of the year.
The special benefits Israel is providing to Argentine olim will continue until the end of the year: In addition to plane tickets, language classes and a year of financial subsidies, Argentines will receive home loans and money to ship their belongings to Israel.
Despite the beginnings of renewed optimism in Argentina, the effects of the economic meltdown still are clearly evident.
The number of Jews taking advantage of an integrated social welfare net provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; a local welfare foundation called Tzedaka; the community's central Jewish institution, the AMIA; Chabad-Lubavitch, and the Sephardi community has risen to more than 36,000 from 9,000 in 1999, before the economic collapse.
Beneficiaries receive food tickets, medicine, rent money, scholarships and job training.
According to JDC statistics, more people are entering the system than leaving it. Last May, the social assistance program received 763 new people, while 451 left it.
One of the people who lost her assistance is Fragda Ozarow, a retired woman who received assistance from July 2002 until May 2003. She received medicine and about $20 a month in food vouchers.
Ozarow no longer qualifies for assistance because she started selling cosmetic products to supplement her retirement pension. She says she still struggles to get by.
Others, such as Mirtha Fuchs, left the welfare system after a family member got a job. Fuchs' daughter just got a position in an appliance store as part of a program sponsored by the JDC, AMIA and Tzedaka, which pays part of her salary.
On a recent visit to Argentina, Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency, said at a news conference that a fall in aliyah also could be linked to the fact that many people hurried to move at the end of 2002, fearing that special benefits would be cut.
As for Faerman, several factors figured into her decision to stay in Argentina. For one, treatment for her ovarian cancer -- she had contemplated going to Israel for treatment -- is going well in Argentina. For another, the slight uptick in the economy gave her hope that she could start a business, so she bought a special machine to stamp designs onto clothing fabric.
Most importantly, however, she didn't want to leave her life-long friends in Buenos Aires.
"I'd never been to Israel," she said. "Honestly, I feel I belong to Buenos Aires."
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