European Jewish leaders turning to Israel for help

Jozeph Nassi, the vice president of Istanbul’s Jewish community, describes the dilemma facing Europe’s Jewish communities.

“When the father gives to the son, they both laugh. When the son gives to the father, they both cry,” he said.

Nassi was speaking of his ambivalence about turning to Israel for assistance as 80 European Jewish community leaders gathered to pursue a united agenda — a conversation dominated by the need to manage rising costs for security, Jewish schooling and aid to the needy.

Their meeting near Catalonia Square in the center of this Spanish city was a stark contrast to the celebrations outside. For the locals, Spain’s spectacular 4-0 victory over Ireland in the Euro 12 soccer championships on June 14 was a distraction from the effects of the acute financial crisis gripping the region.

The Jewish visitors, by contrast, had convened at a nearby hotel for the weekend to immerse themselves in that very problem, hoping to come up with creative ways to offset its effects in their communities.

Struggling with unexpectedly and steadily increasing expenses, the European Jewish leaders are turning for help to Israel, their traditional beneficiary and now the owner of a growing economy.

Their call came at a gathering funded by the reconstituted European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC), a group initially founded 40 years ago by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to serve as its European arm. The organization fell apart in 2010 following budget shortages and a walkout by board members over transparency issues.

The JDC helped re-establish the ECJC last year, and the latter now wants to help unite Europe’s Jewish communities along the lines of the North American Jewish federation system. The European Jewish Congress also supports the ECJC.

“We believe it’s the responsibility of the State of Israel to help the Jewish communities in Europe through this difficulty,” Robert Ejnes, president of the Jewish community of Boulogne in France, told the gathering.

France’s Jewish community — with some 500,000 members, Europe’s largest outside of Russia — is struggling to meet its members’ needs and was “limited” in how it could help communities abroad, he said. Some French-Jewish parents, Ejnes added, can no longer afford to give their children lunch money for the school cafeteria, and the elderly are struggling to pay their utility bills.

Further, the March 19 shooting in Toulouse underlined the need to invest more in protecting the 30,000 students in French-Jewish schools, Ejnes said. Three children and a rabbi at the Otzar HaTorah school were killed that day by Mohammed Merah, 23, a French-Algerian sympathizer of the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, European Jewish communities have spent decades helping Israel establish its economy and build a strong army, Ejnes said.

“Now the child is getting very strong and the parents are older,” he said. “Europe’s Jewish communities do not have the strength they had.”

The presidents of the Jewish communities of Lisbon, Portugal, and Sofia, Bulgaria, supported his call.

The acute economic crisis in Greece was, not surprisingly, a matter of concern. The president of the Jewish community of Athens credited Israel and American Jews for their support, and noted that European communities “gave less.”

Benjamin Albalas of Athens said the JDC alone has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Greek-Jewish community since the crisis made it one of the hardest-hit Jewish communities in Europe.

He declined to say how much money Israel is giving.

“Israel has its channels to help. It is represented by the Jewish Agency,” Albalas said.

Back home, he added, some in his Athens community cannot afford funeral expenses for their relatives, face eviction or can no longer afford to pay community membership fees, which are not uncommon in Europe.

So far, only one European Jewish community has helped Greek Jewry, he added. The tiny Jewish community of Luxembourg gave 1,000 euros, or about $1,260. 

Mario Izcovich, director of pan-European programs at the JDC, urged European Jewish communities to help one another and to reconsider “a culture or tendency” that places responsibility for action with the state. He called the donation by Luxembourg’s Jewish community “an example” for other communities. 

Compared to the U.S. community, European Jewish communities “do not have a culture of giving,” he noted.

Several organizations and Jewish communities signed a document on June 15 — titled the Barcelona Declaration by the ECJC — pledging their commitment to transparency and to promoting solidarity among Jewish communities in Europe and beyond.

The motivation for such joint initiatives and declarations lies in how European Jewish communities are “needlessly divided,” according to Izcovich, who has lived in Spain for the past 25 years.

Referring to the 1985 treaty that led to a borderless European Union, he said, “We need to create our own mental Schengen” agreement.