Greece's Jewish Community Struggles to Stay Afloat

Greece's economic crisis has wrought havoc on the country's middle class, rattling the foundations upon which Jewish communal institutions stand.

Revital Blumenfeld
Revital Blumenfeld

Personal letters were sent to members of the Jewish community in Athens in recent months asking them to pay annual community dues. This brash appeal for funds is just one of the previously unthinkable measures taken by Greece's Jewish community in an effort to survive.

"This never happened in the past," said Ilana Demetrio, a Jewish resident of Athens. "The practice used to be that each person donated time and money based on his own resources and abilities. But recently, a practice of sending letters specifying concrete amounts has taken root. This happened because of our economic situation."

The Salonika Jewish community celebrating Tu Bishvat. Credit: Daniella Uziel

Jewish community leaders are familiar with each family's economic situation, so the letters ask for different dues from each recipient. Even so, many members will have trouble paying. But the community has no alternative.

Greece's two-year-old economic crisis has wrought havoc with the country's middle class, and thereby rattled the foundations upon which Jewish communal institutions stand. A once-prosperous Jewish community of some 2,000 people has become indigent. And many fear that harder times are yet to come.

The crisis has numerous causes, but the most important factor behind the Jewish community's distress is the loss of real estate income. Greece's Jewish community, which in its heyday numbered some 70,000 people in 38 towns, purchased many real estate assets, and some were later donated to the community's coffers by wealthy Greek Jews. After World War II, just 5,000 Jews were left in the country, mainly in Athens and Salonika, but revenue from real estate assets remained the community's main source of income.

"Rental income has decreased by 30 to 50 percent, and we have apartments and stores that are completely vacant," said Larry Sefiha, deputy head of the Salonika Jewish community. "People are simply leaving because of the economic crisis.

"The problem is that we are in a period when everyone needs help: People have lost their jobs, and they can't take care of their parents or children," he added. "We have doubled the amount of assistance we give to Athens, but it still isn't enough. The Jewish community is fighting to survive, and we are busy trying to meet our responsibility of preserving Jewish heritage in Greece."

Jewish community leaders in both Athens and Salonika tried to solve their budget shortfalls by cutting back on services to members, but this proved impossible. Recently, therefore, they finally acknowledged that they can't solve the problem on their own and turned to overseas Jewry for help: Two weeks ago, the Jewish Agency, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews launched a fund-raising campaign for Greek Jewry.

"Many young people are interested in immigration to Israel," noted Nelly Kapon, 53, of Salonika. "Five years ago, that word wasn't even in their lexicon. I think it's good for them ... But on the other hand, it would spell the end of the community here - because they are its future."



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