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Winnipeg community looks to Argentina for new members

A new CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg should have good connections among community movers and shakers, Bernie Bellan says.

Twenty-five years ago, Winnipeg’s Jewish community made a series of presentations to Jewish-Argentinians in Buenos Aires that resulted in a wave of new Jewish immigrants to the city.

In 1995, Janice Filmon, who currently serves as Manitoba’s lieutenant-governor and was then the wife of Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon, found herself sitting next to a Jewish-Argentinian on a plane. He was looking to immigrate to Toronto, but she persuaded him to consider Winnipeg instead.

He was impressed by what he saw and suggested that the community send representatives to Buenos Aires to meet with other Argentinian Jews who were considering leaving the country.

At the time, Winnipeg’s Jewish population was declining rapidly and economic conditions in Argentina were in a dismal state. The Winnipeg Jewish population had been in decline for more than 30 years and the community was looking to try to reverse the trend. At the same time, the provincial government, in an effort to bolster Manitoba’s population, was introducing a new, targeted immigration program outside of the federal one.

The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg also established a website in Spanish promoting the city and organized several missions to Buenos Aires over a span of five years to meet prospective immigrants. “We had 44 families come between 1996 and 2002, 70 come in 2003 and 40 more in 2004,” reported Evelyn Hecht in The CJN in 2008.

And, she pointed out, the Winnipeg Jewish community provided a welcome reception for Jewish Argentinians who  immigrated to the city.

While conditions have improved in Argentina over the last 15 years – with a corresponding drop in Jewish-Argentinian immigration to Winnipeg – the economic and political situation has recently deteriorated, resulting in renewed interest in the prospect of immigrating to Winnipeg.

Carlos Benesdra, a chartered professional accountant, was one of those Jewish Argentinians who came to Winnipeg hoping to build a better life for his family. He came here 17 years ago and is currently the chief financial officer for the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg.

In early December, Benesdra and his family paid a visit to Buenos Aires to visit extended family. “We have received a lot of (interest from) Argentina recently on our website,” says Elaine Goldstine, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg. “Since Carlos was going to be in Buenos Aires anyway, we thought it might be a good idea for him to do some presentations to prospective immigrants.”

Benesdra adds that the Federation placed a small ad in local Jewish newspapers. He reports that 80 people showed up for his two presentations.

“I talked about Jewish life in Winnipeg – the synagogues, the schools,” he says.

Goldstine notes that immigration to Manitoba now is a little more difficult than it was 25 years ago. “The provincial government is looking for specific skill sets,” she said. “We are working closely on this new initiative with the government and the Argentinian association in Winnipeg.

“We will have to see what happens.”