With COVID-19 deaths in the US approaching 125,000 as this is being written, it is a natural instinct for Jewish Americans to first prioritize their personal or family difficulties, followed by issues facing their local communities, followed by challenges their country is confronting.
The consequences of a pandemic, by definition, span the globe. The Jewish community is no stranger to that mindset, having embraced a sense of peoplehood over the centuries and millennia. It is in our DNA to think globally and strive to stay connected as a people.
This is why Jewish Americans must not ignore the significant distress their brothers and sisters are experiencing in Jewish communities around the world. Various Jewish communities are facing desperate financial times due to the pandemic, mainly resulting from a combination of three factors: They are losing major donors, many community members are enduring economic hardship and are unable to pay institutional fees, and communal assets that usually generate income are not operational.
Too often, we as Jewish Americans do not look further than our immediate surroundings. However, especially today, we must not forget about the Jewish people whose communities are hanging on for dear life in other parts of the world.
Take Italy’s capital of Rome, a city ravaged by COVID-19, home to the world’s oldest Jewish community. The community’s president, Ruth Dureghello, describes the situation as a “depression” and a “nightmare.” As a result of decreased tourism and other economic factors, Rome’s Jewish community is worried for what the future holds, particularly for its Jewish day schools that are the backbone of Jewish life. Of the 15,000 Jews there, a high proportion attend Jewish schools, 85% in primary school, 65%-70% in middle school, and 45%-50% attend the high school.
“In the coming months, we will need to make very difficult decisions on where the scarce funds we have can go. As of now, emergency services and Jewish schools will be the first recipients,” says Dureghello.
This is a common crisis among Jewish communities around the world, who are being forced to make virtually impossible choices. Do they stop paying the synagogue staff or drop plans to improve security? Do they reduce the hours of the local Jewish communal centers or let go of teachers at the day school? Can they afford to keep Jewish nursing homes operating?
NO COMMUNITY should have to worry about permanently shutting down basic Jewish institutions and services.
Many Jewish communities were experiencing financial struggles and dwindling participation before the coronavirus era, and some now stand at risk of extinction if they do not receive immediate support from external sources. It is clear these communities need help now.
Responding to this urgent situation, The Jewish Agency for Israel launched the COVID-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis. This emergency fund helps Jewish institutions bridge immediate gaps in cash flow, enabling them to continue to function, provide services for their community members, and avoid complete collapse. The fund is reviewing more than 80 loan applications from Jewish communities outside the US that are in dire need of financial relief, ranging from the large centers of Jewish life in Belgium, France, Italy, South Africa, Spain, and Ukraine to smaller Jewish communities in Austria, Costa Rica, Greece and Paraguay.
In smaller communities, the current crisis poses an existential threat to the Jewish future in their entire country, not only their city or region. For instance, in Greece, which is home to less than 6,000 Jews, the financial distress of Jews in Thessaloniki translates into a dire situation for all of Greek Jewry.
As we started to understand the scope and urgency of current needs, The Jewish Agency – along with our partners at the Jewish Federations of North America, Keren Hayesod and individual donors – understood we had to extend an immediate lifeline. The crisis and its ramifications for Jewish communal life are too urgent. These communities are in dire need of funds in order to survive, so in an unprecedented move, we acted immediately by going to a lender, assuming debt on our balance sheet, and launching the first round of funding without delay.
Across my decades of involvement in Jewish causes, I have never witnessed an initiative carrying quite the immediacy and gravity as the COVID-19 Loan Fund. It is up to all of us to make sure that in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, there will remain vibrant Jewish communities in all parts of the world. Ultimately, nothing could be more important for the Jewish people than keeping our communities alive and connected.
The writer is chairman of the Board of Governors at The Jewish Agency for Israel.