by Taly Mair
In late 2012 I participated with 3 other lay leaders of my community at the EAJCC (European Association of Jewish Community Centers) Conference in Marseille. By chance, I was walking next to Ishie Gitlin, from Mexico City, chair of JCC global (formerly World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers.) I had no idea who he was but he asked me how are things in Athens, Greece, and I told him. I told him that we have a very warm and cozy community of 3000 members but with many problems due to the big financial crisis that Greece is facing. I told him that unemployment in Greece is 28% and in the young adult population (18-30) 68%. I told him that the community’s income has dropped by more than 50% since the main income from donations of our members and real estate rentals dropped dramatically. Many donors have gone bankrupt or are in very difficult financial situation. Rentals, a main source of income for the Jewish community, are not paid for over a year or are evacuated. Taxes rise all the time. Parents cannot pay tuitions at our small but successful Jewish kindergarten and primary school of 140 kids; resulting in growing requests, amounting to 45% of the parents, for partial or total subsidy from the community. Welfare requests rose from 120 in 2011 to 212 in 2012 and 413 in 2013. These are parents who are engineers, architects, shop owners and once were prominent members of our community. On top of that, the extreme right wing party, Golden Dawn, for the first time in Greek history, received 7% of the peoples’ vote in the recent elections holding 18 seats in the parliament. In recent poles their popularity has reached 11%.
The Jewish Community Board of Directors had to face very difficult decisions. How to sustain the one and only Jewish day school? How to solicit more funds for growing social welfare needs? At some point, closing the one and only JCC was also under consideration. Luckily JDC, along with an anonymous donor, came forth with providing economic assistance for 2012 and 2013 and literally saved our Community.
After listening to me, Ishie said “We, at JCC Global, need to come to Athens to understand what is happening, get to know your community, visit the JCC and see the situation with our own eyes.” I was sure he is one of many who have shown sympathy to our situation, after all, Mexico is so far. Lo and behold, after a few short weeks I received word that a JCC Global delegation will visit us in November 2013. Coming from Mexico, Israel, USA and France, the 20 delegates indeed arrived with a great eagerness to learn and to connect with us. It was an amazing experience of exchanging knowledge, opening hearts, meeting great friends for life and more importantly making us, in the Athens Jewish Community, feel part of a much bigger world. We felt that although these are difficult times, we are not alone. But this was not the end of the story. The leaders of JCC Global then asked me to come to Mexico and get to know the Jewish community and more specifically the Sephardi Jewish Community that has many roots in the Balkan countries and in Greece. They wanted me to tell the story of our community to the Jews in Mexico and this is what I did. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Mexico City meeting brothers and sisters who received me with open arms. I had the privilege of staying at the home of Bahie and Carlos Sandoval, esteemed leaders of the Sephardi Community in Mexico, who made me feel at home. I visited schools, synagogues and CDI – one of the largest JCCs in the world with some 20,000 members operating in an 80,000 square meter campus. Every day 3000 children attend their facility – the number of our total Jewish community. While there was no way to compare the resources and strengths of the two communities, we found common ground. We found that we were all working for the same goal – strengthening and sustaining the Jewish People.
A story that I heard in Mexico gave me a lot of hope. Marcos Metta, one of the prominent leaders in the community, told us that in searching the archives of Monte Sinai Congregation, he stumbled across a letter almost a 100 years old, where the amount of 50 pesos is granted to a poor person in the community. That person was named Marcos Metta and was the grandfather of Marcos. That 50 pesos, a small amount for the community, made a big difference to the grandfather. Years later, the grandson, became successful and is now able to give back to the community.
I believe that the Athens Jewish Community, my community, is now at the grandfather’s position. We need the help of others to survive and make it through the crisis. Someday, hopefully, we will give back the help that is now given to us as the known saying: “All Israel are responsible for each other – Kol Israel Arevim Ze Laze“.
Taly Mair is the Director of the Athens Jewish Community, www.athjcom.gr. Taly recently traveled to Mexico and San Diego on behalf of JCC Global. Taly can be reached at email@example.com