Jewish communities in the Diaspora are collapsing - we should help

In many cases, even the largest Jewish communities will be in a catatonic state and unable to continue promoting Jewish life as it did until now.

Jewish man praying in Jerusalem  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish man praying in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The current Passover holiday is unusual and different for all of us. We celebrated the Seder in small groups or alone. Many people have been fired and don't know how they will pay the bills. We are all stuck in our homes without the ability to leave. 
 
So even though we will have a very difficult time getting back to normal, whenever that may be - here in Israel the situation, fortunately, isn’t as bad as it is in many Jewish communities in the Diaspora. As of this writing, in Israel, a bit more than 100 people have died as result of the COVID-19 virus, but in the quarter-of-a-million UK Jewish community many more have passed away. 
 
Here in Israel there are talks of reducing the level of quarantine - a situation that many countries could only dream of at this point.
If we just look at Jewish communities around the world, where there are consistently more deaths than their percentage in the population. We probably have thousands of people dying last month as a result of the pandemic. In Europe alone, there have been more than 400 Jewish deaths, while in the US, especially in areas of the ultra-Orthodox communities, the situation is far more difficult, with many hundreds of people dying every week.
 
When we here in Israel get back to "normal," and our country will start recuperating from the economic crisis - we will still have Jewish schools, synagogues and Jewish institutions - something that will be very different in many Jewish communities globally. In many cases, even the largest Jewish communities will be in a catatonic state and unable to continue promoting Jewish life as it did until now. 
 
Even in the United States, the largest Jewish community outside Israel, with vast resources and immense community infrastructure, this socio-medical-economic crisis is causing a real breakdown of Jewish institutions. JCCs have been forced to fire large proportions of their employees, Jewish relief organizations will soon be unable to provide the needs of the needy, and many educational institutions will not be able to thrive after the crisis.
 
While Diaspora Jews who pay taxes are entitled to receive all their needs from their own countries, the Jewish element will not be fulfilled by their governments. The synagogues, educational institutions and Jewish welfare organizations are most often funded by private donors or members of the community themselves. In a situation where people do not have money to pay for rent, they will not be able to donate to the synagogue or the community, and certainly not pay huge sums for Jewish education.
THE REUT GROUP, an influential Israeli strategy think tank, recently published a position paper tackling the current difficult situation in the Jewish communities in the era of the corona crisis. The paper states, "The coronavirus pandemic dramatically disrupts the Jewish people, and is going to radically change priorities, values and patterns of conduct of Jewish communal life. The Jewish people may find itself not only financially weakened, but facing a long list of insecurities; decreased ability to collectively organize and deploy political or social capital; a weaker sense of belonging to the Jewish collective (peoplehood) and connection to Israel; along with a rising challenge of antisemitism."
 
In the present situation, which is undoubtedly difficult among all populations of the Western world, we are all required to be creative and "reinvent ourselves." But among the Jewish communities, certainly the smallest ones, the implications for the Jewish-community reality are expected to be so dramatic that some of the institutions are unlikely to exist in a few months. 
 
Jewish summer camps, perhaps the most significant educational element among Jewish young people in the Diaspora, are unlikely to open this upcoming summer. Many of these camps will be forced to close because they won't be able to handle the large financial debts, as a result of closing their doors this year. 
 
This will be just one of many elements of Jewish education that the young people will not receive. Many Jewish schools also do not know how they will be able to carry on as private institutions. In a country like the United States, where Jewish welfare organizations have become an anchor for disadvantaged populations, huge groups are likely to remain without food and medical and mental health services.
 
So what does this have to do with the state of Israel? I think a lot. One of the conclusions in the Reut Group document is for Israel to play a major role in this crisis. 
 
"The State of Israel and Israeli society ought to assist Jewish individuals and communities around the world in dealing with corona. This starts with listening to the needs and concerns of world Jewry and generating dialogue to better understand what resources they are lacking and what Israel and our institutions can provide. This aid will be an expression of Israel's commitment to living up to its role as the nation-state of the Jewish people."
 
Not everything is in our hands as Israeli Jews, and most of the work has to be done in the Jewish communities themselves. But maybe, just maybe, we too have a significant role to play here. 
 
I urge my Israeli friends not to respond to this call for action with the popular "immigrate to Israel" line, but try to come up with an idea of how Israeli Jews in the Jewish state can give a hand to our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. They were there for us when we needed them - now we need to be there for them.
 
The writer is a journalist for the Makor Rishon newspaper in Israel, and served as an adviser to the President's Office for Jewish Diaspora affairs. 


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