Eastern European, FSU Jewish Communities and The Age of Corona

The devastating effects of COVID-19 that have ravaged Western Europe and now the United States have so far spared certain Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, even as it now has Russia in its crosshairs.

JDC staff and volunteers delivering food to elderly Ukrainian Jews during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: JDC.

By Sean Savage

(JNS) While the coronavirus pandemic showing no signs of slowing down globally, most of Europe appears to be heading in the right direction with cases dropping across the continent and economies either starting to or in the midst of reopening. However, unlike its counterparts in Western Europe, many Eastern European countries, with the exception of Russia, were largely spared the worst of the pandemic thus far.

In Eastern Europe, it appears that the early shutdown of many countries across the region could have played a role in the virus’s slow spread. As a result, Jewish communities there, although small, have been spared some of the worst effects of the pandemic that their brethren in the West, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, which have seen a very high proportion of its Jewish community die as a result of the virus. While Italy and Spain have been hit the hardest, their Jewish populations are simply smaller – approximately 30,000 and 60,000, respectively.

“It varies from country to country and how quickly they recognized the challenges that were before them. Some acted early on and have control of the situation. It also depends on the level of openness of the government and the accuracy of cases reported,” said Mark Levin, executive vice chairman of the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry, which mainly serves the Jewish community located in the former Soviet Union.

Levin told JNS that the Jewish communities in these countries largely face the same challenges as the larger population, with some exceptions, such as the Jewish population skewing older and in some areas also being more impoverished.

“The impact on the Jewish community mirrors that of the larger population,” explained Levin. “It depends on the size of the community. We know that there are distinct challenges in each of these countries. What is consistent is a strong community attempt to help as many people as they can.”

Russia and Ukraine represent the two largest Jewish populations, and the ones with rabbis and thriving religious infrastructure in place (at least until Russian and rebel troops invaded eastern Ukraine in the summer of 2014). While Ukraine has held steady, coronavirus cases have risen daily in Russia, placing it in the top five most-affected countries worldwide.

“They feel like they are assisting all of the people who need to be helped,” said Levin. “Obviously, it’s easier in Latvia and Lithuania, where the [Jewish] population is below 10,000, than in Russia and Ukraine, where the population is in the hundreds of thousands.”What is especially interesting is that a signification proportion of Jewish life, services, learning opportunities, and holiday and other celebrations are spearheaded by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement – namely, Chassidic rabbis creating religious experiences and involvement for largely secular Jewish communities.

Working on programs to engage people after the pandemic

And then, of course, there’s Poland. Like many other countries in Eastern Europe, it began to shut down non-essential services such as schools, shopping centers, stores and restaurants early in the outbreak. Houses of worship were also severely restricted to up to five people at a time.

Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, told JNS that the Jewish community, similar to the country as a whole, has fared well so far during the pandemic. According to Johns Hopkins University, Poland has 35,146 cases with 1,492 deaths, and as of early July has already opened up its borders to neighboring E.U. countries. Compare that to Russia – as of July 2, it reported some 661,165 cases of COVID-19 and 9,683 deaths.

“Poland in general has a limited number of infected and dead, although many are all concerned that the worse may still be ahead of us,” he said.

As a result of the restrictions – though they have been easing up – Schudrich said he has been conducting classes and other Jewish services online as much as possible, and in accordance with Jewish custom and law.

“All of our classes now take place on Zoom. All of our tefillot and Havdalah take place on Facebook Live. In addition, I have added three new daily classes [six times a week] on Facebook Live [15 minutes each so that more people would join and it works],” he explained.

Beyond the online courses, he said rabbis throughout the country have also been reaching out to families with young children and the elderly, especially those who may not be able to participate in online services.

“We are starting a daily bedtime story for children told by a different rabbi every night. Our rabbis are also calling members just to check up on them to see how they are doing. Our social-work department is in contact with our elderly almost every day to see how they are and how can we help. We are also sending food to their homes,” he said.

Prior to the pandemic, Poland had continued to make international headlines in regard to certain stances on historical references to World War II and the Holocaust. In 2018, the Polish government backed down from its controversial Holocaust Law that sought criminal penalties for any person or entity accusing the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust. The law was widely condemned by the U.S. Jewish community and Israel, and led to ruffled feathers. Geopolitics between Poland, Russia and Israel prompted Polish President Andrzej Duda to skip Yad Vashem’s Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem that marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this past January after he was not invited to speak.

At the same time, there were also growing concerns over the rise of far-right anti-Semitism in the country.

Schudrich says that despite the pandemic, “we have seen no increase in anti-Semitism in Poland. There were a few instances of anti-Chinese hatred.”

Schudrich said he is focused on the full reopening of the economy and helping those in the Jewish community who have been impacted by the economic fallout from the pandemic.

“No one knows what the long-term effects will be. We are certainly concerned that some of the Jews have lost their jobs, and we need to find ways to help them. There is a concern on how will people react when we can return to ‘normal’ living … how quickly people will be comfortable returning to shul for prayers and for classes,” he said.

“On the other hand, we are now in contact with hundreds of people who were not connected previously. How do we build on this virtual relationship to it into a real-world context? We are now working on programs to engage people after the pandemic.”

Many elderly without food and medicine

Poland’s neighbor to the east, Ukraine, has also largely been spared the ravages of the virus thus far. The country has seen 45,887 cases with 1,185 deaths so far.

Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, told JNS that his government’s decision to shut the country down early, when there were only a handful of cases, has largely led to success in keeping infections and deaths low (although the country has seen a renewed spike recently).

“This allowed Ukraine to achieve what many Western countries tried – and that is to flatten the curve. Even though [coronavirus] has been spreading, since the country is basically still on lockdown, it is spreading very slowly and in a relatively controlled way,” he said.

Bleich, who also serves as vice president of the European Jewish Congress, added that many communities in Ukraine have begun assistance programs to help people of all ages, especially the elderly.

“Many families who were working and supporting themselves nicely are now without work. This has caused a tremendous strain,” he explained. “Many elderly are finding themselves without money to buy food and medicine. This is being addressed by local communities. There is an initiative to try and bring together communities to address this problem, along with other issues that may come up after the lockdown.”

While Ukraine has also not seen a spike in anti-Semitism, there was an incident in mid-May when a police official in the country’s western city of Kolomyya requested a list of all Jews, complete with addresses and phone numbers. This prompted an international outcry and an investigation by the national police.

Bleich said he has had a good working relationship with the government during the pandemic so far.

“We are in touch with the government. There have been a number of Zoom meetings with government officials, especially for religious organizations and groups. This allows them to impart the information that they have to us and allows us to discuss with them the issues facing the religious communities.”

Of course, COVID-19 has come after much of the Jewish community, including its rabbis, moved westward towards Dnipro (until 2016 known as Dnepropetrovsk, a sister city to the Boston Jewish community) as a result of tensions in heavily Jewish areas close to the Russian border, including Kiev, Donetsk and Lugansk. In the past six years of a conflict that has ebbed and flowed, many single Jews and families also fled the country to places like Israel and the United States, leaving the elderly behind.

Part of a wider circle

Meanwhile, Hungary – home to the third-largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe behind Russia and Ukraine – has largely been spared the worst of the virus with 4,166 cases and 587 deaths as of early July.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz Party holds a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament, moved early on to grant himself sweeping emergency powers to handle the pandemic. While critics contend that he used the crisis to further erode democracy, the country has been able to keep the spread of the virus at bay so far. In late June, as the pandemic situation continued to improve throughout the European Union, the government moved to end Orbán’s emergency powers.

Despite the low infection rates, Chabad Rabbi Slomó Köves, who serves as head of the Jewish Communities Association of Hungary (EMIH), acknowledged that it’s been difficult to cope with COVID-19.

“We quickly transformed our physical classrooms, where there is social interaction, to remote and virtual classrooms. The same has applied for the routine Torah lessons we hold,” he told JNS.

But he said many have lost their livelihoods due to the strict lockdown, and are now as afraid of imminent poverty as they are of becoming sick.

“Unfortunately, we are still dealing with members of the community who lost their livelihood in one fell swoop and went from being donors to needing support themselves. This has, of course, given rise to an ongoing necessity for social and mental support, which we are also dedicated to helping provide for our community.”

Like other Jewish areas throughout Eastern Europe, Hungary has a large number of aging residents, including Holocaust survivors, who have been particularly vulnerable to the virus, in addition to feeling the affections of isolation from the lockdown.

“It cannot be overly emphasized that our community consists of elderly people, many of whom are Holocaust survivors whose ability to communicate on social-media platforms and other online sources at this time is severely restricted. It is our obligation to continue to care for them and maintain as close contact with them as possible,” he said.

Similar to Jewish leaders in Poland and Ukraine, Köves said he has cooperated with the government and been in close contact with officials. He noted that early on in the pandemic, the government worked closely with Israel to facilitate the repatriation of citizens from the two nations.

One silver lining that Köves noted is that the pandemic has emphasized the value of social life.

“As a rabbi of an active Jewish community, communal life is no stranger to me, given its key role in participatory events and prayers. However, when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, I initially felt a sense of loneliness,” he said.

But once the center started producing content online and offering services to the community, many residents who had not been involved previously turned to the Jewish community for support. That made the circle bigger and Köves happier.

“We noticed that Jewish residents in the city who are not full members of our community have expressed interest in becoming active as they found themselves in need of support; they feel that they are part of a wider circle,” said the rabbi. “There is great value to social circles, as well as to communal benefits provided by the Jewish community. I believe these phenomena are here to stay.”

‘Identify tech-based solutions to manage loneliness’

Michal Frank, regional director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) former Soviet Union Operation, told JNS that the Jewish communities across the 11 countries in the former Soviet Union (FSU) where they operate were disproportionately affected due to their age and socio-economic status.

“Economically, the Jewish community is impacted like the general population. Our clients, however, are some of the poorest Jews in the world, often living on $2 a day, and the virus-propelled economic downturn hits them very hard. In Ukraine, for example, the cost of basic foodstuffs has increased by 60 to 100 percent. In Russia, the ruble has devalued. Our clients are very poor to begin with, and this makes life even more difficult than it was previously, especially as many struggle to make ends meet,” she said.

Nevertheless, JDC said they quickly adapted their responses to the countries they serve.

“We began our response earlier than most other organizations or governmental bodies because we were seeing the impact of the virus on Israel and Jewish communities in the United States and beyond, and knew we needed to act quickly to safeguard those in our care,” she said.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected the poor and elderly across the world. For JDC, this meant working with local and national partners to provide life-saving services like food, medicine, home care, basic health care and other relief.

This included expanding the hotlines to all Hesed social-welfare centers, working with JDC volunteers to continue the delivery of food and activity sets, such as special holiday packages for Passover and Shavuot, and deploying digital resources like video calls to seniors. They also partnered with an Israeli firm, TechForGood, to “identify tech-based solutions to manage loneliness and social distancing among seniors; monitor the activities, needs and emergency alerts from elderly; and ensuring efficient management of caregivers.”

Despite the challenges facing the Jewish communities in the FSU, Frank said the pandemic has also opened up new outreach to those they serve.

She specifically cited how digital programming and assistance from young volunteers have created new avenues of assistance and connection that didn’t exist just three months ago.

“We have discovered new opportunities for online community programming that is educational, cultural, as well as a powerful engagement tool. For example, through digital programming, our network of JCCs is seeing previously uninvolved community members joining online activities,” she said.

Additionally, she said they were also surprised by how many elderly Jews embraced technology during this time stuck at home.

“We’ve discovered that our elderly clients are more enthusiastic about and desire these kinds of offerings than we anticipated,” said Frank. “We need to ensure that they have access to technology, working within the challenges in the region regarding internet and mobile connectivity, and continue to adapt content for their needs.”

“While we hope one day to return to in-person activity,” she continued, “we know that the initial work we have made in adapting to digital content and programming for the wider Jewish community needs to now be in place.”

While it’s impossible to predict how the pandemic will continue to unfold globally and within Eastern Europe, Levin said Jewish organizations in the region have been working hard to keep the most vulnerable protected and make sure that Jewish life continues. “The bottom line is the leadership in all these countries, along with the assistance of international organizations like the JDC, European Jewish Congress, World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Agency. They believe they have the situation under control as much as they can.”