From the CEO: JDC Stands with Greece's Jewish Community

In a lighter moment at the Jewish Day School in Athens, JDC CEO Alan Gill gives students a brief Hebrew lesson at their teacher's request.
In a lighter moment at the Jewish Day School in Athens, JDC CEO Alan Gill gives students a brief Hebrew lesson at their teacher's request.

Alan H. Gill

– Chief Executive Officer

Of all the countries plagued by Europe’s economic crisis, Greece has stood out in the headlines. After five years of economic contraction, the country continues to buckle under bailout-imposed austerity measures, plunging living standards, and soaring unemployment rates. Add to that political extremism and social unrest and one understands why this ancient nation has been exposed to the global spotlight.

Under those circumstances, I traveled to Athens three weeks ago and found the city’s 3,000-member Jewish community—like all of Greece—struggling, but determined to forge ahead.   

As many of you well know, JDC, with Jewish Federations of North America support, has been leading a global consortium of Jewish organizations, communities, and philanthropists who’ve extended help to this financially strapped community over the past two years.

And while my visit was in many ways a statement of solidarity, bolstered by a JDC Board mission that took place just a few days before, I believe our presence in Athens was even more poignant because it provided insight into the juxtaposition between the crippling challenges besetting Greece and a Jewish community proudly weathering that storm.

Knowing the extent of the difficulties they’ve endured, I was truly inspired by the expressions of areivut—of mutual responsibility—and love of community that I found in my meetings with Athens Jewish Community President Dr. Benny Albalas, President-Elect Minos Moissis, and other Jewish leaders.

This special group included three engineers (all Technion graduates, interestingly enough), a veterinarian, a family business owner, and a real estate developer. They shared with me the extent of the crisis’ impact and its personal repercussions, with one confiding that his net disposable income has dropped 65 percent in the last two years.

They noted how community members have gone from being donors to beneficiaries in the blink of an eye. And how some community members' grown children are leaving because of a young adult unemployment rate of 57 percent.

As I learned from them and in my subsequent meeting with US Ambassador Daniel B. Smith, wages, pensions, and salaries are down 40 percent; some 30-35 percent of Athens' stores have closed; and plummeting rents have cut deeply into the community's primary income source, even as taxes on that income have gone from zero to 23 percent.

To address the needs born out of such a crisis, we’ve done a lot of work together over two years. We’ve ensured a robust program of rent subsidies, food provision, and critically needed school scholarships for the most vulnerable families, many of whom lost businesses, jobs, and property.

And to keep Greek Jewish youth involved with their peers throughout Europe, we held our annual Gesher Regional Young Leaders' Institute in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, once referred to as the “Mother of Israel” because of its long Jewish history and unique culture.

For the Athens Jewish community – which operates two synagogues, a day school for some 150 children, a welfare program, a home for the elderly, a JCC, a Holocaust memorial, and more – our response means more than any of us can imagine.

Board member Etta Zimmerman captured that sentiment in her reflections on the visit: “In all of my years of traveling with the JDC, I never saw a more wounded community … nor one more grateful for whatever help we have given. The community is proud and wants to return to self-sufficiency sooner rather than later.”

Indeed, it was only with great reluctance that this community looked outward for assistance. And yet, as I toured the school strengthened by our scholarship assistance, the spirit of that help and the community’s gusto for Jewish life was uplifting. And our Board members were moved, too, impressed by the passionate volunteers, committed teachers, and smiling, enthusiastic students they met.

There were 142 kids enrolled in the day school this year, 75 percent of the community’s pre-K through 8th grade population—the highest enrollment rate in Europe today! And that in a country where almost 90 percent of the Jews perished during the Holocaust and where today, the right-wing Golden Dawn party engages in verbal attacks against Jews while increasing its political strength.  

Rest assured, it is their extraordinary fortitude and headstrong love for their Jewish identity that together enable this community to overcome what seems an endless string of bad news for their country.

Once again – as we did 15 years ago in Argentina, and as we are doing today in Bulgaria and the Baltics – JDC has come to the aid of a Jewish community in distress.

But it’s not the historic interventions we should applaud, or the life-saving care we’ve made possible.

It is the Greek Jewish community’s continued celebration of Jewish life and their stalwart determination to recover that we should all take tremendous pride in. And for that, we should thank them.

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