Representatives from several international Jewish communities gathered online on Wednesday to discuss how the Jews in their respective countries are faring with the COVID-19 outbreak, as well as what challenges and concerns they face going forward.
Participants on the call, which was sponsored by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, represented the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Argentina and South Africa. Topics focused not only on health care, but on economic concerns, accessibility to kosher-for-Passover food, growing anti-Semitism and more.
“The COVID-19 crisis is clearly having great impact on our Jewish communities here in America, and across the world,” William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, told JNS.
“The unique nature of our community creates unique issues that we are all encountering and all attempting to overcome. We gain strength as a people through unity, and we stand together — across borders, politics and religious affiliations — in the face of this plague, as Jews have done for millennia.”
According to Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council in the United Kingdom, the Jewish community there is “suffering slightly higher death rate than the size of our population [would suggest]. We represent less than 1 percent of the United Kingdom’s population, but 2.5 percent of the deaths. We don’t know if this is a statistical anomaly or a snapshot in time.”
One of the community’s key concerns, he said, is the sustainability of communal organizations as a number have “fallen of the cliff,” with major fundraising events canceled. Many have put contingency plans into place and are examining their funding reserves while seeing what mitigation efforts they can take to stay solvent. Leaders are also talking about joint fundraising efforts and governmental aid.
Also because of the lockdown, Johnson announced that “for the first time in history, we had to cancel all of our summer tours to Israel. Our teens will not be able to go to Israel, and that is very tragic for all sorts of reasons.”
An estimated 1,800 teens from the United Kingdom had been expected to attend an Israel program this summer.
In France, anti-Semitism continues to be a concern both now and in the future, according to Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF).
“Even though we are in quarantine, the attacks may come from the poorer neighborhoods, where they have more problems staying confined to their areas” and not a lot to do, reported Ejnes. “Because of anti-Semitism, that may make us more of a target than other people.”
Also fueling anti-Semitism right now, he added, is the fact that France’s former health minister, Agnès Buzyn, who resigned in February as concerns about COVID-19 were being known, is Jewish, as is her husband. One online attack even accused her of poisoning France’s water wells with the coronavirus.
Ejnes belives that the timing of the outbreak — like New York, it came around the same time as Purim — resulted in significant outbreak among the Jewish community in Strasbourg, where the chief rabbi and many congregational rabbis are infected.
If there has been one hopeful note to come from the outbreak, Ejnes said, it is the “great solidarity of our institutions,” noting that every morning, the leaders of religious, nonreligious, social and political organizations are meeting to discuss communal issues.
“We didn’t used to speak so much, even though we are in the same field,” he said. “Now we are spending one or two hours every day discussing a variety of issues.”
One of them will be what to do about kosher meats and chicken, according to Ejnes. “For supplies, we are reassured for Pesach, but will see what comes next because we will have a shortage of shochets [kosher ritual slaughterers] and meat in the coming weeks, and we will have to import.”
‘The challenge to reach people’
In Italy, where the death toll has been staggering overall, the Jewish community is coming together to support each other, said Noemi Di Segni, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
“The challenges we are facing … is that we cannot be on the front lines in the hospital with people who are sick. We need to support the community from emotional, social and financial support. … People need their community, but they also need a broader framework beyond family and friends.”
To that end, the organized Italian Jewish community, which includes 21 distinct communities, has created a social-media channel with 12 hours of programming daily encompassing cultural, religious and holiday programming.
“We have an editorial staff working day and night,” said Di Segni. “Everyone has been called to be a part of this program. This is very nice because every community would seal with their own program at a local level, but now the feeling is you are participating on a national level. It gives the sense of being part of a bigger family, and this psychologically is very important.”
Di Segni said her community has also established a hotline for people to call and get connected to psychological assistance if they or someone in their family are sick or have passed away. They are also looking to organize a special kaddish at some point for those who have passed away during the outbreak.
With everyone remaining at home, getting people Passover food has proven problematic, especially for Jews who do not live in the main centers of organized Jewish life: Milan and Rome. Di Segni explained that people are only allowed to go to the market closest to them.
“But sometimes, kosher food is farther away, and sometimes, in other towns,” she explained. “We speak to the police to allow people to go to other [areas] or to manage the distribution system through DHL, but it’s more expensive and harder, and takes more days. So that’s the challenge to reach people.”
Argentina’s 200,000 Jews are in similar situations as other countries as they try to deal with the coronavirus, according to Victor Garelik, executive director of the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas. He added that there has been a reticence by some to close the mikvahs and yeshivas.
In South Africa, the impact so far has been minimal, and people are hoping it stays that way, as the medical system would not be able to handle a large influx of patients, according to Wendy Kahn, national director of South African Jewish Board of Deputies. For the most part, the Jewish community is doing well, but concern is for the larger South African population.
“Some 20 percent of our society is HIV positive or have TB [tuberculous],” she said. “The death rate will be very high, and we are moving into winter, and experts say winter is far more problematic.”
Plus, because there are many families living in shacks, who cannot self-isolate, should the coronavirus hit there, “it will spread like wildfire.”
To prevent an outbreak, the country is in extreme lockdown to prevent the virus’s spread — people can’t go out for walks, the army is patrolling the cities — and it’s already taking an economic toll.
“We are already seeing people whose businesses have gone under,” said Kahn, “and we are only on day six” of the quarantine. Those people won’t be able to pay school tuition or synagogue dues, and “suddenly, our schools will be under stress, our shuls will be under stress. South Africa doesn’t have the same [economic] foundations as other countries. … We are an economy that was put on ‘Junk’ status last week by Moody’s [Rating Scale], and we were already in a dangerous situation.”
As for anti-Zionism, Kahn said that universities closed the same week that Israel Apartheid Week was scheduled, so that didn’t happen this year. While some of the rhetoric has moved online, youth in the Jewish community “have time on their hands and are doing a counter campaign.”
Passover is difficult, even a painful time for families who have, for their whole lives, been together, but Mah nishtanah halilah hazeh, Kahn continued, quoting the famous passage from the Passover Haggadah that asks, “Why is this night different?”
“It’s not business as usual,” stressed Kahn, “and we are just trying to support everybody, every way we can.” JN