May 20, 2024
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May 20, 2024
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Greek Jews Feel Pressure of Economic Shutdown

Since 2009, Greece’s economy has been a disaster. While they received billions in bailouts, the money went more into alleviating international debt then rebuilding the economy. And it is only getting worse. On Sunday, July 5, Greek citizens voted “no” to a referendum on continuing economic austerity in exchange for financial assistance.

The Jewish community is not immune to Greece’s poor economy. “People are very concerned and worried about how things will develop,” said Rabbi Mendel Hendel, Co-Director of Chabad of Athens, in an interview with the Jewish Link. “The banks are closed and there is a limit on how much we can take out of ATMs. Businesses are not functioning without the banks.” According to Greek bank executives, the banks are not scheduled to reopen until Wednesday at the earliest.

While Greek Jewry is suffering, there is still a vibrant community life that is surviving through it all. Chabad provides education and social events for the community, including holiday celebrations. This past year, Chabad hosted a seder with 270 people—one floor in Greek and one floor in English.

“We [at Chabad] are here to help the Jewish community with words of support and, for some people, with financial support. In terms of the Jewish community at large, any kind of assistance is welcome. Chabad of Athens is currently setting up a fund specifically for this crisis.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Finman, an American rabbi who travels to Greece routinely on behalf of Balkan Kosher, also lamented the current state of affairs for the Jews in Greece. “People are suffering, Jewish and non-Jewish alike,” Finman told the Jewish Link. “People have lost mortgages and they can’t rent out apartments because there is no one to rent them to. It is a depressed economy with no end in sight. The Jewish community has a lot of social services to help out but lack of cash flow is stopping even that. People are hurting.”

When asked how the Jewish community at large can help, Finman emphasized the importance of rebuilding the Greek economy through tourism, purchasing Greek food products and donating money to the Jewish community. “At this point, pick any of the Balkan countries with Jewish communities. They are all having serious financial issues.”

Though Greece was once a major hub for Jewish life, tens of thousands of Greek Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Today, the 2,500-year-old Greek Jewish community is made up of little over 5,000 people.

“Greek Jewry is mostly middle class, the segment in Greece that has been especially hit by the crisis,” said Rebbetzin Nehama Hendel, Co-Director of Chabad of Athens, in an interview with the Jewish Link. “Taxes are going up. Since the January elections, the market has completely stopped and people are just waiting to see what will happen with Greek-Europe negotiations. Now that the referendum has been announced, it is the worst—no one is doing anything.”

“There is very little liquidity, you can only take out 60 euros per day and even that requires a long wait on line at the ATM. If Greece decides to leave the Euro and go back to the Drachma, the needs will be much bigger,” she said. “Some people who are in a particularly fragile economic situation need money to buy medicine and pay their bills. Having access to cash supply would be a big help,” she added.

The Hendels run the only kosher restaurant in the area and that may suffer if banks do not reopen soon. “We still have supplies since we import kosher products from outside of Greece. However, our suppliers like to be paid and we cannot make any bank transfers,” said Hendel, laughingly. But however ridiculous the situation appears, the economic concern is extremely serious. “One of my very good friends who runs a business with 120 employees recently called me up and said, ‘We are destroyed. I have to pay my workers and I don’t have the money.’”

Hendel also discussed the astronomical unemployment rate of over 25 percent, comparing it to the 1929 Great Depression in America. She encouraged others to think about visiting Greece. “Don’t cancel your vacation; come to Greece and support the community.

“The media likes to paint the picture totally black,” said Hendel. “However, through this, people are feeling closer to Israel and there is a lot of talk of aliyah, especially amongst the youth.” For those who remain in Greece, “there is a feeling of solidarity because we are all here in the same boat—we encourage, support and complain together. A crisis is also an opportunity. The crisis is too deep right now to say anything yet, but I believe everything is for the good.”

Additionally, there are classes, conferences, guest speakers, one-on-one studies, children’s activities and even shiurim over Skype for those farther out in the country. There is also a volunteering network to help the elderly and more-needy people in the Jewish community.

“The highlight of my week is Shabbat. We host locals and people from all around the world. People meet each other, connect and share stories. It’s really incredible for the local community because it’s a way for them to connect to the larger Jewish world.”

To donate money to help the plight of the Greek Jewish community, go to

By Bracha Leah Palatnik

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