As coronavirus affects Italian Jews, Israeli NGOs step up to offer support

Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Isaac Herzog, and Chairman of Keren Hayesod, Sam Grundwerg, spoke with leaders of Rome and Milan's Jewish communities.

A man wearing a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, Italy, March 4, 2020 (photo credit: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / REUTERS)
A man wearing a protective face mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus walks past the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, Italy, March 4, 2020
(photo credit: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / REUTERS)
As Italy struggles to come to terms with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the country, The Jewish Agency for Israel and Keren Hayesod have joined forces to offer Italian Jewish communities support, assistance and to voice solidarity with those affected.
“We naturally feel solidarity with all Italians, but we are particularly touched by the situation of the Jewish communities, to whom we wish to extend a helping hand in this time of crisis,” JAFI Chairman Isaac Herzog, and chairman of Keren Hayesod Sam Grundwerg wrote in a letter of support to the president of Rome’s Jewish community, Ruth Durgello. The two also spoke with leaders of Rome’s and Milan’s Jewish communities.
“The Jewish Agency, together with Keren Hayesod, stand ready to assist your community in order to help you come through these hard times,” the letter continued. “We will appeal to Jewish communities worldwide, as well as to leading Jewish organizations, to help you out and provide support, as the old proverb says: ‘All Jewish people are responsible for one another.’
“We will not stand idly by when communities face an unprecedented challenge the like of which we have not witnessed in our generation. We will assist and support you in the spirit of fraternity and solidarity of the whole Jewish people.”
Copy of the letter written by Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Isaac Herzog, and Chairman of Keren Hayesod, Sam Grundwerg to President of Rome's Jewish community, Ruth Durgello (Photo Credit: Jewish Agency)Copy of the letter written by Chairman of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Isaac Herzog, and Chairman of Keren Hayesod, Sam Grundwerg to President of Rome's Jewish community, Ruth Durgello (Photo Credit: Jewish Agency)
Durgello shared her community’s fears, saying: “We are a proud and ancient community in the midst of the worst situation we have faced since World War II. We are in a state of complete uncertainty. We are trying to stabilize the situation, but there is tremendous anxiety here about the danger of a complete collapse,” she continued. “General morale is very low. We know there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how long the tunnel is.”
Italy has been the hardest hit nation outside of China, and the government recently placed the country on effective lockdown. The restrictions came after confirmed cases rose to 12,462 on Wednesday, from a previous 10,149, with the death toll jumping by 196 in just 24 hours to 827.
ROME’S JEWISH community of around 15,000 is among the oldest in the world.
Grundwerg said that, “The connection between the Jewish communities in the world and Israel is two-way. Our brothers in the Jewish world have been working with dedication for Israeli society all the years, routinely and in times of emergency. Obviously, during the difficult period that passes for the Jews of Italy, we will stand by them.”
Milan is in the Lombardy region, which has suffered the worst of the outbreak in Italy. The president of Milan’s Jewish community, Milo Hasbani, revealed the measures being taken in order to maintain calm in the community. “Our schools and nursing homes have been shut for three weeks,” he said. “We are organizing various support channels to help community members, especially elderly people who are in quarantine and can’t go food shopping. We are setting up distance learning for the children, investing in disinfectants and preparing the community’s security team for any scenario.”
Herzog spoke with Hebrew media on the issue, saying he “had emotional conversations with the leaders of the Jewish communities of Italy, which are small and comprised of a relatively large number of elderly people who are encountering a challenge the likes of which they have not faced since the Holocaust. We have set up a special team to immediately analyze their most urgent needs, and together with Keren Hayesod, we will work to help the community as quickly as possible. I urge our parallel Jewish organizations and Jewish communities worldwide to mobilize, given the extent of the need.
“Schools, kindergartens, security, assistance for Holocaust survivors and other vulnerable people at risk, and the preservation of synagogues and cemeteries are just some of the challenges these communities are facing,” Herzog continued.
A team led by Shay Felber, director of JAFI’s Unit for Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations, and Alex Kerner, Keren Hayesod’s emissary in Italy, will focus on providing provisions for the affected communities.
“It is always comforting to know that Israel is with us, and especially the Jewish Agency and the assistance it provides,” Hasbani said.
JAFI announced that it is also “working on assisting the community on three levels to meet their needs: assisting nursing homes; setting up distance-learning infrastructure for children and teachers who are quarantined; and helping the communities set up a hotline to help those in quarantine.”