Between mourning and solidarity, Jewish communities battle the virus

Data on the religious identity of those infected or deceased usually does not exist and even Jewish institutions themselves often do not have accurate information.

Satmar Hasidic Jews await the arrival of Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum at a mass gathering in the Brooklyn borough of New York December 2, 2015.  (photo credit: DARREN ORNITZ / REUTERS)
Satmar Hasidic Jews await the arrival of Grand Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum at a mass gathering in the Brooklyn borough of New York December 2, 2015.
(photo credit: DARREN ORNITZ / REUTERS)
As the coronavirus crisis intensifies all over the world, the outbreak is hitting countries and cities with a large Jewish population hard: among them the United States, France and the United Kingdom.
Data on the religious identity of those infected or deceased usually does not exist, and even Jewish institutions themselves often do not have accurate information. There are exceptions: for example, according to a report from the Jewish Chronicle of London, on Friday, as the death toll in the UK stood at 759, Jews represented about 4.5% of the victims, while the Jewish community at large only accounts for 1% of the country’s general population.
The data available as well the dramatic increase in reports on rabbis, teachers and community leaders killed by the virus all over the world, support the impression that the virus is hitting the Jewish community in disproportionately high numbers.
“We do not have any precise data on how many people in French Jewish communities have been diagnosed with the virus or passed away because of it, as data on ethnic origins does not exist. But based on the number of leading community figures we are hearing about, we feel that the number is exceptionally high compared to the general population,” Robert Ejnes, executive director of CRIF – the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, told The Jerusalem Post. “Part of the reason might be that cities, where Jews tend to live, are more affected than rural areas.”
As it happened in many communities around the world, Ejnes explained that a critical moment for the outbreak was probably the festival of Purim – which fell on March 10 – when many people gathered for the Megillah reading in synagogues and for parties.
For the past two weeks, all synagogues in France, like all other religious sites, have been closed. Most ritual baths have also been shut down, and the official association of mohalim (ritual circumcisers) has asked all the families to postpone circumcision ceremonies until after the crisis, even if some of them are still working because of families’ requests.
“All Jewish institutions have switched to work online, and we are making every effort to address all issues at stake, from childhood education to nursing homes,” Ejnes added. “Whenever it is possible, we also take care of delivering kosher food to those who request it from the hospitals.”
About half a million Jews live in France. According to CRIF’s executive director, the city of Strasbourg, which is home to a large Jewish population, seems to be among the most affected areas.
“We are also seeing a great display of solidarity to help take care of the oldest and the most fragile,” Ejnes concluded. “What is very important now is that people understand that it is crucial to stay home for the Passover seder, even if it means that families are going to be apart.”
IN THE JEWISH community of Milan, Italy, the weekend was “tragic,” Milo Hasbani, president of the 6,500 member-strong community, told the Post.
Three members of the community have succumbed to the coronavirus, bringing the total number of victims to eight. Among those who have passed away are Efry Levy Azizoff, a member of the board of the Persian community in the city; Mordi Arazi, a leader of the Lebanese community; Dolly Cudkowicz Hodara, a founder of the Italian branch of Keren Hayesod Women’s Division; and Micky Sciama, a former secretary-general of the Jewish Community of Milan.
In Milan, which has about 1.4 million residents and is the capital of the hard-hit northern Lombardy region, the latest data shows a total of 3,560 people infected with the virus. According to Hasbani, besides for the victims, there are currently about 20 confirmed cases among the members of the community, with five or six of them hospitalized.
“It is really hard to keep in contact with them, while we are trying to assist those who are at home,” he said.
The community has created a hotline for those in need of medical or general support in cooperation with the local Jewish Medical Association. The social services are staying in constant contact with the 250 households they normally assist. The association has organized a group of volunteers with the help of several organizations to shop and deliver groceries to the elderly or those who are in quarantine.
“We are making sure that anyone who needs Pesach products or kosher meat receives it,” Hasbani said.
“Many Israeli leaders and Jewish leaders from all over the world have expressed their solidarity to us and promised they would help,” he said. “So far, we have received a grant from the Jewish Agency, and I hope that more will follow, even if I know that the situation is very difficult in a lot of places. I’m worried about the economic impact that this crisis will have on the people in the community in the near future.”
AS FOR THE United States, on Sunday, the number of infected people in New York, which is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, reached 59,000, with 960 deaths according to CNN.
“We do not have numbers about how hard the Jewish community has been hit, but we can assume that the numbers are proportionate to our presence in New York,” Deborah Joselow, UJA Chief Planning Officer, told the Post. “I can say that the situation here is very difficult and we are very grateful for our governmental leadership at city and state level. They have been very clear and prescriptive.”
In the city, like in other areas of the US, Jewish institutions are stepping in to support the most fragile within and outside the community. Last week, the UJA Jewish Federation of New York announced a $23M fund in immediate financial aid to vulnerable New Yorkers affected by coronavirus (COVID-19), including $250,000 in Passover meals for the needy.
“At UJA we do two things, we care for the vulnerable and we support vital Jewish life,” Joselow explained.
“In a crisis, the vulnerable become more vulnerable,” she further said, explaining that they are trying to make sure that they are striving to protect those who need food and shelter, victims of domestic violence, working poors, while many of the services that they usually run and support are facing great challenges to continue their work because of their paralysis created by the outbreak.
UJA officer added that also Jewish institutions, from synagogues to schools, found themselves in a completely different dimension, forced to switch to online activities or to shut down completely, cash strapped because they are not collected fees or tuition.
“We are trying to help as much as possible with no time or resources to ramp up,” she said. “There isn’t a system in New York that is not currently under stress or pressure.”
“We are closely organized with the Jewish Federations of North America and we are also talking to partners in Israel,” Joselow concluded. “We are only going to get through this by getting through this together and being together doesn’t mean just being neighborly, or just caring about New York, because we are all living the coronavirus crisis, we need to support each other, learn from each other and share best practices at a national and international level.”