Crisis-hit Greek Jews fear for their future
ATHENS, Greece — Patricia Alcalay, 24, has been unemployed since she finished her nursing degree in December 2010. Her father lost his job four months ago, a year shy of retirement.
Her older sister, who was studying abroad, meanwhile, found work in the Netherlands and is not coming back to Greece anytime soon.
Stories like these have become common among the Jewish community in Greece, which, like the rest of the Greek population, is struggling to stay afloat in a country engulfed in the fifth year of an economic crisis that shows no sign of abating.
Approximately 5,000 Jews live in Greece – about 3,500 in Athens, 1,000 in Thessaloniki and the rest scattered elsewhere – and community leaders say they are labouring to maintain Jewish institutions and deal with the additional heavy demands on welfare programs.
Some of the leaders fear a greater threat to the community’s future: an exodus of young, unemployed Jews leaving a country where they see little hope.
“It is a very difficult situation for us because of the financial crisis in Greece. It affects the Jewish community very heavily,” said Benjamin Albalas, the president of the Jewish Community of Athens, an association that provides funding for the city’s Jewish institutions. “We are supporting two synagogues, the school, the cemetery, a community centre and a number of needy people that is growing all the time.”
As the need for community aid has increased, the funding to the communal institution has decreased sharply.
Much of its revenue comes from Jewish community-owned commercial and residential properties dating back before World War II, when some 78,000 Jews lived in Greece – many in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, a community that was almost wiped out entirely in the Holocaust.
But in the past year the Greek government, faced with chronic income tax evasion, imposed steep property taxes in a bid to raise state income. “And because of the general situation, the people who rent our properties have either left or they have asked us to lower rents,” Albalas said.
In addition, he said, donations from hard-hit community members have dropped 50 per cent.
Albalas declined to give specific figures, either for income or for the needs.
As part of the harsh austerity measures imposed on Athens, the Greek government has slashed pensions, lowered public and private sector wages, and reduced tens of thousands of state jobs, all of which have hurt the weaker sectors of the Jewish community.
“Our two main problems now since the crisis are that pensions have gone down and there is very big unemployment,” said Isaak Mordechai, the deputy head of the Athens welfare committee. “Pensions have diminished so much, people cannot live.”
The Jewish Community of Athens is providing direct assistance – financial help, supermarket food vouchers, and medical and psychological support – to some 60 people. “But it is clear that a lot more people are going to need help,” he said.
In February, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Board of Governors voted to grant about $1 million over two years to help Greece’s Jewish communal institutions continue operating. Other Jewish groups have offered aid, too.
However, community leaders in Athens and Thessaloniki say they have not been officially informed of the decision and the money has yet to arrive.
The money, though, will focus on Israel education, and is earmarked to help the Jewish communities of Athens and Thessaloniki cover specific initiatives, according to JAFI spokesperson Josh Berkman. Among those initiatives are shlichim (Israel emissaries to the community), counsellors for the Jewish summer camp and financial assistance to the Jewish school in Athens.
“I can assure you we are in touch with the Jewish leadership in these communities,” Berkman said.
As of late February, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had donated $330,000 for welfare and school scholarship to the Athens Jewish Community, according to a news release.
Such funding, however, will not keep the institutions alive and support the needy.
National unemployment is more than 21 per cent and tops 50 per cent among those under 25. Albalas says the levels are about the same in the Jewish community.
For the young, the future looks like a wasteland.
“I have occasionally had some part-time jobs, but nothing permanent. It’s very disappointing,” said Alcalay, who has been searching for work as a nurse for 16 months and is considering abandoning her profession.
“I’m looking for a job in any field now because I need the money. I don’t have anything else apart from my parents, and both of them are also unemployed,” she said.
Alcalay is not alone.
“There are many of my friends who have just finished university this year or last and can’t find jobs,” said Evie Leon, 24, a former head of the Jewish Youth of Athens.
The community tries to help. Jewish businessmen network to find jobs for the young unemployed. Two young men receive stipends for taking part in daily minyan.
“We are talking about simple jobs. We are not head hunting,” Mordechai said.
But ultimately it is not enough.
“The unemployment is so bad that unfortunately they are leaving for abroad, either to study or find work,” said David Saltiel, who heads Thessaloniki’s Jewish community, where the situation is equally grim, and is president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.
Leon says her friends in Greece are “depressed and stressed.” The rest have left and “are not planning on coming back until the situation gets much, much better.” Even though she has a job, she also is “looking into opportunities to leave the country.”
Alcalay’s 25-year-old sister is among those who left to study and did not return after she found a job with an information technology company in the Netherlands.
“She wants to come back in a few years, but I don’t recommend it,” Alcalay said. “Even though I love her, I say, ‘Don’t come back because you will be unemployed.’”
Those who leave are doing what they can for themselves and their families. But leaders know and fear the toll this will have on the community.
“When our young generation leaves and becomes well established abroad, I think it will be difficult for them to return,” Saltiel said. “We will become a community of old people.”