In Barcelona, Presidents of Europe’s Jewish Communities Sign Historic Solidarity Pledge

July 11, 2012


Maxim Benvenisti, 59, President of SHALOM, the Organization of Bulgarian Jews and JDC’s main partner in Bulgaria, says the dramatic impact of Europe’s economic crisis makes him fearful for the future of his community.

“There is an increasing and alarming welfare caseload in my community and growing poverty. This affects not only the elderly, but also the middle generation and young families, who are feeling the strain of the downturned economy. There is a new type of people in need: people who lost all that they earned in the last decade. They have no clarity of vision for their future.”

Maxim is not alone in his worry. Last month he joined over 100 participants from 20-plus countries in Barcelona, Spain at the 4th Meeting of Presidents organized by JDC and ECJC (European Council of Jewish Communities). Representatives from all the major European Jewish communities were present to network; share challenges and best practices; and sign the historic Barcelona Declaration. As signatories, pan-European Jewish organizations and community representatives pledged to promote the “core values” of responsibility, democracy, transparency, mutual respect, and acceptance.

The Barcelona Declaration also states networking, communication and leadership among European Jewish organizations to be of utmost importance in these times of economic upheaval in Europe.

In a truly pluralistic setting, communities of different political inclinations and religious denominations—reform, conservative, orthodox, and secular—came together to discuss the challenges facing European Jewry. A record number of Jewish organizations and foundations convened to discuss the crisis, alternative funding sources, and potential interventions. In the process, a new cohort of young leaders emerged to speak about how they envision the future of the communities that they will lead in the coming decades.

Today communities from Bulgaria to Athens, Milan to Lisbon, are feeling an unprecedented squeeze on their existing resources and new income streams while the number of poor and their needs continue to grow.

“Everyone is feeling the pressure of the crisis and there are new needs from new populations that are in economic distress. Basically the poor are getting poorer and the rich aren’t getting richer,” said Robert Ejnes, President of the Jewish Community of Boulogne and Board Member of the Fonds Social Juif Unifie (FSJU) of France. “Our welfare services—food aid, school scholarships and meals, new funds for our new caseload, housing—are all at maximum capacity.”

Robert felt the meetings gave the leaders a unique opportunity, however. “Despite all of this, it is interesting to see how communities, in a global market, can learn best practices, find new funding, and re-establish solidarity.”

For many at the conference, JDC has been an important partner in their leadership development. For example, Simone Mortara, Board Member of the Jewish community of Milan, touts JDC for sustaining and helping grow an instrumental cadre of young leaders in Italy through training and networking programs like Leatid Europe, a JDC flagship initiative which focuses on management and strategic planning, and helps expand the pool of outstanding Jewish communal professionals. Of the current board in Milan, 7 of the 18 board members are under the age of 40, and 4 of them have had extensive training through JDC-supported efforts such as consulting on strategic planning and sustainable community development.

During the three-day Barcelona conference, these leaders attended sessions on the European economic crisis and Jewish solidarity; religious diversity in Jewish communities; women, leadership, democracy, and transparency in Jewish communities; new models of organization in Europe; and big challenges for small communities, among others. In the main session on the European economic crisis and Jewish solidarity, Jewish leaders from across the continent made strong calls for solidarity among communities that are struggling to regain their economic footing, emphasizing the inherent Jewish values of communal responsibility and tzedakah.

Mario Izcovich, Director of Pan-European Programs for JDC said, “We need a European perspective on the crisis and we simply need more solidarity in our region.” He pointed out that JDC reacted quickly in the case of Athens, Greece, but there has not been enough support from other Jewish European communities.

“The solution to this is greater inter-connectedness. Frontiers need to be crossed. Communities need to be more conscious of one another and work together for a greater good,” he said. Many participants proposed a creation of Jewish European stability fund, a way for communities to save a part of their budgets for crisis situations in other communities.

Benjamin Albalas, President of the Jewish Community of Athens, which has been among the hardest hit by the current financial downturn, reports that his community is trying its best to stay afloat. “We are living in a country where the economic outlook and the political situation are bleak and extremism is growing. In times like these, the important contributions from JDC and other Jewish organizations are a sign that solidarity is still a value among Jews.”

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