Coronavirus is testing the resilience of Europes small Jewish communities – The Jerusalem Post

Posted By on September 23, 2020

With 20 years of experience as a professional singer, Petra Ernyei had enjoyed a reasonable level of job security.

During the High Holidays especially, Ernyei, 44, could depend on steady gigs from local Jewish organizations in her native Czech Republic, home to some of European Jewrys oldest heritage sites.

She has performed at the Maisel Synagogue, a 17th-century Renaissance temple with three naves, and the synagogue in Polna, which was rebuilt in recent years after having been used by the Nazis as a warehouse for stolen Jewish property.

But with the coronavirus pandemic blowing a large hole in the communitys budget this year, several employees have been let go by Czech Jewish groups and even freelancers like Ernyei have seen their work evaporate. Now instead of working for the community, she is relying on it to survive, joining a growing list of Prague Jews who have come to depend again on international Jewish philanthropy to make ends meet.

I try to be optimistic. Sometimes I cry, Ernyei told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. We dont go out anymore, the kids mostly stay at home or go to friends. Life is different now. But I remember that weve got our health and weve got each other.

But as Europes Jews celebrate the High Holidays, the financial repercussions of the pandemic are just now coming into focus. They threaten to undo years of progress toward achieving financial independence.

Smaller Eastern European communities, which languished under communism for decades and only recently have come to develop local sources of revenue that enabled them to shed their dependence on foreign donors, are increasingly depending anew on external aid.

This reliance on aid is familiar territory for Jewish communities in former communist countries like the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, especially spent hundreds of million of dollars on caring for the basic needs of needy Jews in the aftermath of the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the 1990s.

Communist repression meant that most Jews in newly democratic countries had little knowledge of their religion and its traditions. So millions of dollars more went to helping them build community institutions, including schools, summer camps and youth programs.

Some communities also were given back real estate that had been stolen from Jews in the Holocaust, a mixed blessing that included spectacular synagogues but also dilapidated structures and cemeteries that strained their budgets.

Over time, as some of those sites became lucrative tourist attractions and the ranks of local supporters swelled, many of the communities have become less dependent on charity and more self-reliant, though with razor thin margins.

The pandemic has complicated a delicate balance sheet.

The coronavirus crisis is compounding the preexisting financial problems of small communities in Europe, said Sergio DellaPergola, an expert on Jewish demography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Theyre limited in their sources of income and burdened by maintenance expenses on old real estate.

The shortfall owes to a near total halt in ticket sales at the Jewish Museum in the capital city, which generated thousands of dollars daily before the pandemic. And there was a secondary effect: Revenue from community-owned property rented to hotel and restaurant owners, businesses that took a beating because of the coronavirus, also took a serious hit.

Theres no sign that this new reality is going to change in the near future, or before 2023, Papousek said. We need to start thinking about a new financial model.

In Hungary, home to one of the larger Jewish communities in the region with about 100,000 people, the coronavirus cost the Jewish community about $1 million in lost ticket sales to the Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in Europe and a popular Budapest tourist attraction. Mazsihisz, the main Jewish umbrella group in Hungary, managed to avoid dismissing any of its dozens of employees, but it did mandate a 40% pay cut. That forced some staff to quit because the reduced salary was too little to live on, a member of the Mazsihisz board said.

We used to have 200 to 300 visitors each day, many from Israel, said Alexander Oscar, president of the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria Shalom. Now theyre not coming anymore because of corona and were going to have a serious budget problem.

So far, the Bulgarian community has managed to avoid staff layoffs but Oscar says that wont be possible much longer.

Were barely managing to pay the bills this month, but after September I dont know what were going to do, he said.

As in the United States, where a coalition of donors quickly pulled together an $80 million emergency fund as the pandemic gained ground this spring, the JDC has led an emergency program to provide relief to 1,600 Jewish families in 16 countries, including 11 in Europe.

The first phase of the Pandemic Humanitarian Relief Program its being funded by a consortium of donors that includes the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, the Maimonides Fund and the Genesis Philanthropy Group began in April with stipends ranging from $100 to $180 each month.

That fund is in addition to a $17 million allocation last month from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency aimed at supporting small Jewish communities through the crisis. An earlier $10 million Jewish Agency fund created to lend money to communities at risk has received applications from 80 communities worldwide.

The growing reliance on external funding represents not only a step backward for many of these communities in terms of self-reliance, but also comes as many potential benefactors run low on cash themselves because of the pandemic. But many in the communities say their institutions are strong enough to weather the crisis in part because they know how to work together and leverage resources that didnt exist decades ago.

The crisis has also strengthened bonds within communities that almost didnt exist 40 years ago under communism. In Bulgaria, a program called Phone a Friend encouraged younger community members to reach out to older ones who were either confined to their homes or at an elevated risk outside them.

Martin Levi, a 33-year-old events manager from Sofia, made calls each week to check in on two men in their 70s. One of them wanted to know why he was talking to an old man instead of finding a wife, which made Levi laugh. The other had traveled widely and was a skilled conversationalist.

Our community has managed to stick together, improvise, regroup and adapt, Levi said. It exists and it can survive this setback. It makes me feel proud to be a Bulgarian Jew, and it shows the return on the investment that it took to build this community.

To Russel Wolkind, the director for planning and partnership for JDCs Europe division, this is evidence that the fallback to external aid will be only a temporary measure. The communities of Eastern Europe have developed the infrastructure to stand on their own when circumstances improve.

Yes, theres external funding, but the handholding of the 1990s is a thing of the past, Wolkind said. The communities are administering this and other emergency measures themselves, and are rising to the occasion in an impressive way.

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Coronavirus is testing the resilience of Europes small Jewish communities - The Jerusalem Post

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