On July 8, the Jewish Agency for Israel, under the leadership of Chairman of the Executive Isaac Herzog, announced that in its initial phase, its newly launched loan program has already granted close to $10 million to Jewish communities around the world who are battling the dire effects of COVID-19, both physically and socially.
Upon its launch in April, the program, under the auspices of the Jewish Agency together with its partners Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Federations of North America, received 80 loan applications from 26 communities, totaling $22 million in requested assistance. To date, 67 of the loan applications have been processed, allocating working capital loans of up to $350,000 to each community or organization. The communities that have been the recipients of the loans to date include large centers of Jewish life in Belgium, France, Italy, South Africa, Spain and the Ukraine, and smaller communities in Austria, Costa Rica, Greece and Paraguay. The Jewish communities of North America and the FSU are not included in the program.
In a Zoom conference held at the Jewish Agency in Israel, at which the COVID-19 Fund was announced, Herzog shared, “As Israel has received both emergency and ongoing aid from Jews in North America and worldwide for many years, this crisis represented Israel’s golden opportunity to support overseas Jewish communities. This has always been the essence of the Jewish Agency, since its establishment in 1929, to serve as a global platform for addressing international crises and galvanizing collective action. At the same time, the COVID-19 Loan Fund for Communities in Crisis represents an unprecedented step for our organization on behalf of the global Jewish people.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted Jewish communal life in the communities that have reached out for assistance. From their prior financial stability, they have been challenged to finance basic communal services. Majorly impacted were educational and welfare institutions.
The loans are targeted at five areas of most concern: community stability, resources, resilience, Jewish education and anti-Semitism/security.
During the Zoom conference, Amira Ahronovich, CEO of the Jewish Agency, announced the concurrent launching of the J-Ready Platform, a network based on shared Israeli and international COVID-19 experiences, to assist communities with technological solutions, webinars and consultations with experts in education, medicine, community organization and more. “The goal of J-Ready is to supply a tool kit of best practices to communities worldwide,” Ahronovich said.
Leaders of Jewish communities from the first group of loan recipients expressed their gratitude on the Zoom conference for the urgently needed assistance. Noemi Di Signi, president of the Jewish Communities of Italy, reported that the financial assistance was distributed to 22 communities within Italy, some of which are not at all supported by the government. The monies were well-utilized in providing resilience through the engagement of the communities in Torah broadcasts, movies and other educational programs. Social welfare programs in great need were also supported.
Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who had served as Argentina’s minister of environment and was recently appointed president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, has seen Argentina go through many crises in recent years, including the two terror attacks in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, and the political and social crisis of 2001. “Now that our communities are shut down, once again the Jewish Agency is our support in overcoming the crisis of the present and is our school of resilience to together shape the future,” he said.
Avrom Krengel, honorary president of the South African Zionist Federation, reported how, despite efforts to close down their communities early on after the onslaught of the virus, they are now experiencing a resurgence of the virus in the major cities of Capetown and Johannesburg. The Jewish Agency funds were so appreciated and were designated to welfare and education. Most importantly, South Africa is continuing to promote its close connection to Israel through its ongoing special flights of olim to Israel.
Krengel praised the Jewish Agency, saying, “No international organization has done more for the South African Jewish community over the past 20 years than the Jewish Agency for Israel. Now during the COVID-19 crisis they have responded to every request we have made and have helped South African Jewry survive this terrible epidemic and economic catastrophe. We can’t thank them enough.”
The Jewish Agency Loan Fund is chaired by leaders from the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, Beth Kiefer Leonard and Richard Pearlstone, joined by a committee of financial experts from across Europe and South America as well as professionals from the various communities who help assess needs and design appropriate responses.
According to Leonard, “The goal of the Jewish Agency must be to preserve Jewish life worldwide. In this role we must be agile and responsive. We know these communities through our shlichim and are aware of their specific needs at this time.”
Further information about applying for the loans can be found at www.jewishagency.org/communities-loan-fund/.
By Pearl Markovitz