Greek Jews facing economic hardship maintain hope

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Click photo to download. Caption: From left to right: Steven Schwager, CEO and executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Benjamin J. Albalas, president of the Jewish community of Athens, and Alberto Senderey, director general of JDC Europe and Latin America. JDC held a press conference with Albalas on Tuesday in New York. Credit: Maxine Dovere.

NEW YORK—Amid their country’s crippling economic crisis, Greek Jews have a safety net.

Greece’s ongoing economic crisis—plus increased taxes—has virtually halved the Jewish community’s income, dropping from a pre-crisis revenue of almost 1 million euros annually to approximately 600,000. More than 160,000 euros (almost a quarter of a million U.S. dollars) are owed to the Jewish community in the form of back rents. 

Fortunately for these newly poor Greek Jews—many of them formerly members of the economic middle class—social and scholarship funds are available. Particularly in financial need is Greece’s younger generation (ages 25-40), where unemployment has reached as high as 30-32 percent. 

“If young people cannot pay fees, the community must support them,” said Benjamin Albalas, president of the Jewish community of Athens, during a press conference held May 1 at the New York City offices of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). “A feeling of affiliation is important.”

JDC was the first Jewish organization to come to the assistance of Greece, providing moral aid as well as money for the poor and for school scholarships. The current commitment of JDC totals 250,000 euros (about 330,000 U.S. dollars).

Albalas, Greek Jewry’s top executive, said these financial and social challenges needed immediate response. There are currently 3,500 Jews in Athens, 1,000 in Salonika, and another 1,000 spread out among six smaller communities. Like their counterparts throughout Greece, members of the Jewish community have seen salaries and pensions decrease by an average of 35 percent. An additional round of austerity measures is set to be put in place in June, though Albalas said, “We have no knowledge of what will happen.”

Some 25 percent of stores and businesses have closed in Greece. “People don’t have money to buy things; they don’t have money to pay rent,” said Albalas. “Demonstrations against the government make life very difficult,” he added.

More than 95 percent of Greece’s Jewish population was destroyed during the Holocaust. According to Greek law, the Jewish community became the repository of all property left without inheritors. An additional 5 percent of community property comes from charitable donations. Since the end of World War II, the Jewish community has administered and maintained these properties. Its schools and community resources have been supported by the income they generate.

Fees for school tuition present a specific challenge during the financial crisis, as about 75 percent of Greek Jewish children are in Jewish Day School. Total costs are about 1 million euros annually, and half of that used to come from parents. Job loss and business decreases have led to “an amazing increase in scholarship applications,” Albalas said.

Social service needs for the Jewish community are expected to increase by 20 percent in the coming year; 50 of Greek Jews now receive assistance, according to Albalas. “People cannot pay their electricity,” he said. “Asking is very difficult. No one wants to be embarrassed in front of his community. People are still using their savings.”  

The fact that 75 percent of Greek Jewish children are in Jewish Day School is a unique phenomenon—outside of haredicommunities. JointMedia News Serviced asked Albalas how that figure was reached.

“From virtually the moment a pregnancy is announced, an outreach committee of young parents approaches the prospective parents,” he said. “The parents are invited to the school, and made a part of the school community.” For families both of the school and the community, there are bimonthly programs that “keep the community united,” Albalas said. 

Since the failing of the Turkish-Israeli relationship two years ago, a new closeness has grown between Greece and Israel. A new era began two years ago, with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiating a new political friendship. High-level diplomats have exchanged visits, Israeli tourism has increased to almost 400,000 annually, and multiple visits by community members of multiple generations are underway. Students about to go to university are encouraged to visit the Jewish State; some are considering aliyah.

Preventing Greece from falling into further social and economic turmoil, such as that experienced in Argentina, is a challenge faced by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Both have promised to give Greece 160 billion euros in the next several years, noted Albalas.

Posted on May 7, 2012 and filed under Features, Jewish Life, World.