'How can you fight an invisible enemy?” a high-ranking official at Safra Square asked me earlier this week. “That’s almost mission impossible. But, after the first shock, we understood that the best thing we can do is to stick to our basic routine while coping with the specific added needs dictated by the coronavirus situation.”
City hall has become the headquarters of Jerusalem’s battle against the virus. One major goal is to save, support and give hope to its seniors and disabled citizens. Mayor Moshe Lion’s large office on the sixth floor is the center of operations, with branches scattered all over the capital, mainly through the 30 local councils and community centers. Seniors, Holocaust survivors, children and families with special needs, as well as shared and specific needs of the various sectors throughout Jerusalem – all of these are being addressed.
In French Hill, Sarah Athias, in normal times the coordinator for elderly residents of this neighborhood, says the crisis has turned her into a soldier operating in emergency conditions.
“I have to work from home, so my computer and smartphone have become my weapons, and they are working round the clock – phone calls, messages, it does not stop for an instant, and the same goes for all the other seniors’ coordinators across the city.
Of the 17,000 French Hill residents, the roughly 800 seniors have suddenly become persons at high risk, so the needs are many and various.
“We work on several levels: seniors who are usually totally dependent, those who are housebound and need a wide range of care, etc. Once we provide all the basic necessities, we address social needs, which are also important in these days of isolation.”
Separated from their children and grandchildren, seniors who usually independent now need help for the most basic activities, like shopping at the supermarket, and have no access to their usual activities, such as gym, lectures, cinema, theater, concerts or a day center.
“These formerly autonomous people have lost their independence and we have to provide solutions,” says Athias.
Parents of special-needs children require help for basics, as well as ways to occupy the children whose institutions are now closed.
“Those who are connected to Internet and have some knowledge of the digital world will get different solutions than those who don’t, but sometimes it’s too much for them to download an application that will help them keep in contact, or get an interesting program we suggest them, or attend a gym class online and so on. It’s a huge amount of work, and we make extensive use of volunteers, young adults, students, youth movements – without them it wouldn’t possible.”
VERED JULIUSBURGER, director of the municipal department for senior citizens, says she sometimes doesn’t have time to breathe. With 85,000 seniors in the city, the needs are almost beyond imagination. She also says that nothing would be possible without the hundreds of volunteers who execute the solutions she and her staff conceive. For citizens who cannot cook, the Welfare Ministry helps provide meals to their homes three times a week across all neighborhoods, including the haredi and Arab ones.
She notes that many seniors at first refused the meals, but when they realized they were prevented from going out, the demand spiked. There are now 11,400 registered seniors, and the number rises daily.
“There are more than 100 calls from seniors daily to 106 [municipal hotline] or a large range of issues – medications for example, or anything that these residents who cannot go out need.”
The same routine is in place in every neighborhood. Each morning, phone calls are made to all identified seniors.
“We have trained our volunteers and social workers that this has to be a real conversation – not just a quick ‘Good morning, how are you, do you need anything,’ but at least 15 minutes of conversation, trying to discern the true situation of the senior at the other end of the line,” explains Juliusburger.
The project, called Ma Nishma Yerushalayim (How are you, Jerusalem), aims to forge real contact that will encourage seniors to realize that they do need help – something not obvious among those who are independent.
“We manage to identify those for whom the isolation has become a threat to their mental health. Our staff is trained to find those who will, eventually, just say ‘I am alone,’ and then they will determine how to face this situation. We don’t want to miss anyone.”
Plumbers, electricians and other handymen are considered essential, and continue to work. Seniors who need these services can get them through the 106 call center, which directs them to the seniors department at Safra Square.
“No senior is left alone with such a problem,” adds Juliusburger, who coordinates with the Help Is on It’s Way association.
Additional crisis aid comes from the Lev Ehad (One Heart]) nonprofit group, which has opened three day centers for young children of the medical staff of the Hadassah (both campuses) and Shaare Tzedek hospitals. Turning thousands of citizens into a skilled and effective volunteer force, Lev Ehad, working with the municipality, helps members of the medical staff to continue saving lives.
SIMILARLY, ON the Arab side, large families are isolated in their homes, anxious to learn more about the pandemic, not really believing that the authorities will compensate them for their financial losses.
“We are alone, totally alone,” laments Shaher Shabana, a father of seven (three of whom are married and live in other neighborhoods). Shabana, who 15 years ago the founded an association of parents of special-needs children, and integrated it into the city’s parents association, says that while most of Jerusalem’s Arab residents strictly observe the rules of confinement, this is not true for his relatives living in the Hebron area.
“They don’t take it seriously; they go on with life as usual. There is going to be a terrible tragedy there, but here, we are all in the houses, we get along with what we have. In our society, we always keep a large amount of basic food, so for now we are managing.”
He adds that his aged parents, who live far from him, are holding on thanks to neighbors.
“One of my daughter lives nearby, so I pop in occasionally, but the two others live in Kufr Aqab, [which is in city limits but] beyond the security barrier; there’s no way to reach them.”
A religious man in his early 60s, Shabana says that he stopped going to the mosque from the first days of the crisis – but, he adds with a glimpse of bitterness, it took a few days for the Wakf Islamic trust to warn the population not to attend prayers.
“Some of us, here in A-Tur, pray right beside the houses, in the yards, keeping our distance from each other. We are terribly afraid of this virus and understand that in this terrible crisis, we, the Arabs of Jerusalem, are alone.”
Shabana and his neighbors are skeptical regarding the compensation the government will provide.
“Most of us do not expect much, so we help each other. In the Old City, for example, landlords of large buildings have already agreed to reduce the rent their tenants pay, and even in some cases, to renounce to it for a month. Nobody is going to be thrown out into the streets here.”
However, residents in the Arab neighborhoods complain on social media that in Wadi Joz, the open-market merchants have doubled and even tripled food prices.
“We should learn from the Jews,” wrote an angry neighborhood resident “They do not exploit the situation to make profits during these difficult days. Shame on these merchants.”
In the Old City, wall drawings are trending as a way to relieve the isolation. Manzur Abu-Rabiye, who lives in the As-Sawana neighborhood inside the Muslim Quarter, has become a celebrated local artist. He covered large swathes of house walls with his paintings, and his neighbors praise him for adding beauty to their sad condition.
Taxi driver Sliman Abu Hamda lives in Beit Hanina, where, he says, people stay at home and prevent the children from going out.
“Like in the Jewish neighborhoods, only supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies are open. I don’t have any more clients, so I work in deliveries, like almost all the Arab taxi drivers in the city. Wearing a mask and gloves, I ship everything – from a pharmacy to a computer shop. I have no choice; I have a family to feed.”
IN THE haredi sector, the traumatic disruption of their way of life has intensified anxieties.
“Try to imagine what it means for us, raised since our early childhood that prayer and Torah learning hold the world, that they are our main purpose on earth – and one day we are told no more prayer or Torah learning. This more than a trauma, this is an earthquake,” said Raheli, a mother of four in Romema. She says that she gets along and even manages to work a bit from home, but cites her older sister’s situation as an ongoing nightmare.
“My sister has four children at home plus one of her daughters who divorced recently, who moved in with her three children [it is unconceivable in our community for a divorced woman to live alone so she lives with her mother], and another daughter is about to give birth to her third child. According to our customs, the last weeks before delivery and at least one month afterward, she will remain at her mother’s house. So my sister and her husband, her four young children, the divorced daughter and her three children, and the pregnant daughter with her two children, her husband and soon the baby – all of them live together in a 90-square-meter apartment.
“And if that were not enough, Passover is coming. In our communities, we do not buy ready-made food, we prepare everything from scratch, and this has to be done in a kosher-for-Passover kitchen – so where can the family eat meanwhile? Usually, these are the two weeks that we all eat outside, but now everything is closed. This is a nightmare.”
In most haredi families, the young boys study all day long at the yeshiva and return home only at bedtime. Now that yeshivot have closed the boys are back home full-time.
“In many families, children are sleeping on mattresses on the floor, on blankets in the dining room, in the corridors. Not to mention that there is no quiet place to continue to study, two persons together as we do [hevruta]. Where can you find the calm necessary to study Gemara in this situation? The anxiety, the sense of losing our most basic customs is terrible for us. And on top of that, we have to face the hatred of secular people who have no clue about our life and our needs,” complains Raheli.
Moshe Lefkovitch, a Hassid in his 50s, says his life has dramatically changed overnight. For health reasons, he remains at home, with his wife and the last still-unmarried child out of his large family.
“We have enough space, but Passover is coming, and celebrating it alone without the married children and the grandchildren is something we have never experienced and therefore cannot imagine.”
Raheli, Lefkovitch and other haredim say they feel they have been let down twice.
“First by our rabbis, who did not react immediately to the threat, and then by the official authorities, as if we should solve our problems alone. We are indeed alone,” declares Raheli.
They complain that police forces arrive only in Mea She’arim, where the most extremist haredim live, which leads straight to riots and violence.
“Why don’t we see policemen in Romema, in Makor Baruch, where people need their presence. Also what about testing for corona? Nobody comes to our neighborhoods to run tests. Are we doomed in the eyes of the authorities?”
Rabbi Bezalel Cohen, a Lithuanian hassid, says that the haredi sector’s main problem is the large families all packed in relatively small apartments, and on top of it, the difficult conditions to get prepared for Passover.
“Remember that we do not have the alternative of TVs, iPads or smartphones or any other of these devices, so its hard with all the children out of their schools, yeshiva and at home.”
Cohen believes that when the pandemic ends, the major crisis (besides the economic one, since haredim were on the lower scale of income even before) will be that of leadership.