Help and Hope for COVID’s Jewish New Poor

Life forever changed for Avraam Calderon – whose name has been changed for privacy – when coronavirus hit Athens. Due to COVID-19, the city’s theaters closed, leaving Calderon – a stage actor in the Greek capital alongside his wife – unemployed indefinitely and unsure how he’d afford all the expenses related to raising his young daughter.

Unfortunately, Avraam’s story is not unique nowadays. Amid global employment loss and economic decline, Jews and Jewish communities, like their neighbors, are being financially impacted. The result has been the emergence of new poor families and elderly who, after losing their income, are now turning to their local Jewish communities for support for the first time.  

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), in partnership with mostly European philanthropic leaders and foundation partners – including the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Philanthropic Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, and Genesis Philanthropy Group – and Jewish communities worldwide have noted this growing trend. In response, they established an emergency humanitarian relief fund to aid growing numbers of needy emerging from the pandemic’s economic downturn. In 16 countries, including Argentina, Bosnia, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Morocco and Tunisia, funds for food, medicine, rent, and supplementary income have been distributed to 1,600 households, impacting an estimated 6,000 people. 

When the Athens Jewish community announced it was part of this new humanitarian relief program providing funds for food, medicine, rent, and more to the hardest-hit new poor – Calderon jumped at the chance to participate. Normally, the Athens Jewish community supports about 50 of its members in need on a monthly basis, also providing ad hoc assistance to people facing unexpected medical costs and other emergencies. Since the pandemic began, more than 100 households in the city have already received the new JDC aid.

“This humanitarian aid really helped us cover our everyday expenses, and without it, the stress of how my wife and I would afford our basic family needs would have been huge,” he said.

The initiative, which has been active since April, not only sustains these families but has often strengthened engagement with local Jewish communities.

The Krispin-Anastassov family is one such family in Sofia, Bulgaria. Living in the capital city, which has experienced growing unemployment in the wake of COVID-19,  parents Yana and Yordan, both 44-years old, were suddenly faced with income loss when their freelance jobs in the film industry came to a halt. 

The proud parents of 8-year-old Hannah, they turned to Shalom, the main organization of the Bulgarian Jewish community, for help. They received food vouchers and financial assistance through the humanitarian aid program to bridge them beyond the crisis. The material and emotional support they’ve received has led enabled them to make ends meet, prepare for re-entering the job market, and gotten them more involved with the Jewish community after previously being unaffiliated.

Yana is currently teaching an online DIY home improvement course for community members, utilizing her talents as a costume designer, and, for the first time the family will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah at community-wide celebration in Sofia.

“It’s been a very hard year, with worries about money and health taking a toll on all of us. The Jewish community has done so much for us, helping us get past this tough time and embracing us with open arms. It’s that love and acceptance that inspired us to celebrate Rosh Hashanah for the first-time as a family. It’s now a holiday filled with hope, joy, and sweet things to come,” said Yana Krispin.