New Humanitarian Fund Helps Jewish Communities Endure Pandemic
October 10, 2020
When the coronavirus pandemic hit Athens, Avraam Calderon’s whole life changed.
Due to COVID-19, the city’s theaters closed, leaving Calderon — a stage actor in the Greek capital alongside his wife — unemployed indefinitely and unsure how he’d afford all the expenses related to raising his young daughter.
But then the Athens Jewish community announced it was part of a new JDC humanitarian relief program providing funds for food, medicine, rent, and more to the hardest-hit “new poor” — and Calderon jumped at the chance to participate.
“This humanitarian aid really helped us cover our everyday expenses, and without it, the stress of how my wife and I would afford our basic family needs would have been huge,” he said. “Especially for smaller communities like mine that struggle with donations from their members during difficult times, it’s a great relief and will surely help get us through this crisis.”
The relief fund — which JDC leads in partnership with mostly European philanthropic leaders, foundation partners, and local Jewish communities worldwide — helps thousands of Jews in Europe, and through special grants, thousands more in North Africa and Latin America, facing pandemic driven financial strife. These are people who were not previously in need of community welfare support in places like Argentina, Bulgaria, Estonia, Italy, Greece, Latvia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, and Morocco.
For Taly Mair, the director of the Jewish Community of Athens, the aid is one more example of JDC’s continuing commitment to her city’s Jews, who number about 3,000. JDC played a critical role in getting her community through the financial challenges of the last decade, she said, adding that Athens’ recent experience working with JDC to strengthen its community resilience also helped prepare the city’s Jews to work together collaboratively and intuitively during the COVID-19 crisis.
“JDC is like the big sister that’s always there. It’s the safety net for our community — not only financially, in that we know we won’t starve because JDC is there to give us help and hope in difficult situations, but strategically,” Mair said. “They bring us new ideas and new know-how, constantly helping us to get better and develop.”
Mair said the Athens Jewish community has a strong tradition of caring for its most vulnerable members, but donations and rent from community-owned real estate declined sharply as the pandemic began.
“This has already dropped by 50 percent from the financial crisis a decade ago, and when COVID hit, suddenly businesses were allowed to pay much lower rent. But what about us who rely on this income to care for our vulnerable and support community needs?” she said. “That’s where JDC comes in.”
Normally, the Athens Jewish community supports about 50 of its members in need on a monthly basis, also providing ad hoc assistance to people facing unexpected medical costs and other emergencies. Since the pandemic began, more than 100 households in the city have already received the new JDC aid.
It was difficult to convince community members who lost their jobs or faced a significant reduction in income to ask for assistance, Mair said.
“We needed to persuade them that asking for help wasn’t something to be ashamed of,” Mair said. “This pandemic has created a difficult situation for everyone, and each success story was the result of personal outreach from us, telling them, ‘It’s OK to ask for help. We are here for you, and so is JDC.’”
In Milan, which was hit hard and early by the pandemic, community president Milo Hasbani is grateful the new fund allows him to aid vulnerable community members, including those who don’t qualify for Italian government assistance.
“The people we help appreciate this relief so much,” he said. “They tell us how much they don’t want to be a burden on the community … that up until now, they never had to ask for anything.”
Though Hasbani has participated in JDC’s leadership training programs and pan-European networks for years, the pandemic-related financial assistance represents a new relationship between the organization and the Milan Jewish community.
“Beyond the ongoing training opportunities offered by JDC, it becomes a direct help to our community members in times of emergency, like those we face now,” he said. “JDC wants to support not just this person or that one, but our whole community.”
Still, the impact on the individual can’t be overstated, said Shmuel Nahmias, an Athens caterer who recovered from bankruptcy after Greece’s financial crisis only to be knocked down again by the pandemic.
“I haven’t received any income for the past three months, and it’s hard to imagine a future when big events are again taking place,” he said. “This relief has helped us buy the basics we need to survive. If we didn’t receive it, I really don’t know how I’d make it.”