Fearing bankruptcy, Greek Jews ask brethren for help

Potential overseas donors insist on transparency and cutbacks, mirroring the relationship between Greece's government and int'l institutions.

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
October 24, 2011 16:30
4 minute read.
Beth Shalom Synagogue in Athens

Beth Shalom Synagogue in Athens 311. (photo credit: Courtesy of Athens Jewish Community)

 
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The Jewish community of Greece might be unable to pay its bills by 2013, unless it receives aid from Jewish organizations abroad, local leaders have told The Jerusalem Post, in recent weeks.

Benjamin Albelas, the president of the Jewish community of Athens, said his organization has been hard hit by the deep recession afflicting the European nation and won’t be able to meet its financial commitments a year-and-a-half from now in the current conditions.

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“The financial situation, which as we know is very bad, has affected the Jewish community very much and the situation of the Athenian Jewish community in Athens – the largest in the country – is dire,” said Albelas, whose organization runs a synagogue, a school and a museum that serve the city’s 3,000 Jews.

David Saltiel, the head of the community in Thessaloniki, which has used its deeper pockets to support needy Jewish communities around the country since the onset of the financial troubles, confirmed the severity of the situation.

“I’m afraid that if something does not happen to save all the Jewish communities in Greece we will be in a difficult situation,” he said.

“Worst of all is not being able to support Jewish life, the synagogues, the schools and those in need.”

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Since the recession began last year revenues from Jewish assets and donations have dropped precipitously, making it increasingly difficult for communities around the country to pay for services rendered to its 6,000 members.

The biggest blow so far has been the new property tax.

The measure, passed by the government earlier this month in a bid to raise money to pay off its debtors, levies an additional 16 euros on every square meter.

Because the Jewish community’s biggest source of income is real estate, its coffers have been particularly badly affected by the law.

“A lot of the property is either vacant because people cannot afford them, or the tenants are demanding rents reduced by 40 percent or they threaten to leave,” said Albelas.

In order to avoid bankruptcy, Greek Jews have appealed to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), an international relief group based in New York City, for help.

The JDC, which has played a similar role in the past in places like Argentina, where it stepped in to bolster the local Jewish community in the wake of the collapse of the local currency in 2001, said it is in the process of considering the request.

“JDC is in close touch with leaders of the Greek Jewish community, examining the potential effect of the current economic situation on Jewish communal life and exploring ways of helping,” a spokesperson said.

Albelas estimated a grant or loan of between 300,000 to 400,000 euros from the JDC was needed, whereas Saltiel said a loan of $1 million returned over a five year period would prevent potential insolvency.

He said JDC’s head, Steve Schwager, is expected to travel to Athens later this year for talks.

In the meantime, JDC will begin auditing the community’s finances.

“As always, we are doing the due diligence necessary to make this a success and are currently waiting for additional financial information from Athens’ Jewish community,” said JDC.

The likelihood of the loan going through depends in part on the ability of Greece’s Jews to balance their books, a process that would require painful cutbacks and layoffs.

In that respect the relationship between JDC and the Jewish community of Greece is similar to that being played out on a much larger scale between the Greek government and its lenders, the so-called Troika, consisting of The International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union.

Anticipating such demands, Greece’s Jewish leaders said they have begun introducing austerity measures, but complain about the difficult choices they face.

Albelas said he would introduce a 10% across-the-board cut in salaries and trim other expenses including closing summer camps for children.

The Jewish community in Thessaloniki – which is on sounder financial ground than the one in Athens because its proceeds from local real estate are greater – said it too was reducing expenditures.

“Those who arrive at the age of pension might have to be let go,” said Saltiel, the head of the community.

“The curator of the Jewish museum will be outsourced and we are thinking maybe instead of having two rabbis, having only one. But we are trying very hard to keep our Jewish life – it’s our life.” •

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