ITALICS Jewish Agency says Israel helping Diaspora weather pandemic, in role reversal

By Yaakov Schwartz*

Jewish Agency head Isaac Herzog cited a “change of paradigm” during the pandemic era, in which Israel is helping struggling Jewish communities across the Diaspora – instead of the other way around – after initial disbursements from an emergency loan fund helped communities stave off collapse.

Addressing a virtual briefing on Wednesday at which some of the community heads shared their experiences weathering COVID-19, Herzog said the Jewish Agency has already provided nearly $10 million in interest-free loans to 23 Jewish communities in Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, New Zealand and South Africa – and that applications for an additional $12 million put the requested amount of aid at over $22 million.

“Some of [the communities] entered a literal paralysis because of the fact that Jewish life is based on connection, events, minyan [public prayer], schools, kindergartens and of course on social services,” Herzog said. “We then understood that one of the biggest issues for Jewish communities is that of old age homes and social services in countries that at times do not support the communities themselves.”

“As Israel has received both emergency and ongoing aid from Jews in North America and worldwide for many years, this crisis represented Israel’s golden opportunity to support overseas Jewish communities,” Herzog said, adding that the loan fund is “an unprecedented step for our organization on behalf of the global Jewish people.”
President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni. (Photo by Giovanni Montenero)

Jewish communities “severely affected” by the pandemic include Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, South Africa, Italy, France, Spain, Austria, Poland and states in the former Soviet Union, said Herzog.

The revenue of many community institutions is reliant on attendance, which has been frozen due to lockdown orders. There has also been a steep decline in charitable giving because many community members have lost their jobs, Jewish leaders said.

Even communities that were financially stable prior to the outbreak are now finding themselves forced to cut back on services, including education and essential social welfare.

“[Italy’s] communities are really in a difficult situation because people have lost their jobs, they cannot continue to support their community as they did before, and the community doesn’t have the money to provide and ensure all the services that they usually give,” said President of Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi di Segni. ‘”Not only the religious services, but especially educational, schools and social support.”

Italy’s four Jewish schools — in Rome, Milan, Turin and Trieste — are recognized by the government but do not receive state support, she said.

Di Segni also said that many sectors were suffering due to anti-contagion measures, and “some groups in Rome have completely lost their jobs.”

“The Jewish Agency once again stands alongside the Jewish communities of the Diaspora at the most difficult times such as this crisis. Argentinian Jews never forget it, in the face of the two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires 1992 and 1994, in the social and political crisis of 2001 and now with COVID-19,” said Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who previously served as Argentina’s environmental minister.

“The Jewish Agency is our support to overcome the crisis of the present and our school of resilience to together shape the future. We are very grateful to the organization for standing with us side by side, at this time of crisis,” said Bergman.

The briefing was addressed by representatives and leaders of communities in Italy, Argentina, France, South Africa, as well as the United States, from which no community was a beneficiary.

*The article was published in the Times of Israel on July 8, 2020.