July 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL—Declaring that the COVID pandemic poses a “possibly existential threat to Jewish life as we know it,” Federation CJA here will try to raise $100 million over the next two years to meet the immediate needs of community members most negatively affected and to ensure the long-term survival of needed institutions.
The Community Recovery Campaign, launched virtually on July 23, replaces the traditional fall Combined Jewish Appeal, now in its 103rd year. It is co-chaired by prominent businessmen Mitch Garber and Jonathan Wener, who stressed that the 90,000-member community now faces its worst crisis in generations.
The Federation estimates 3,000-5,000 Montreal Jews have become “newly vulnerable”’ due to loss of employment or business and economic hardship exacerbated by social problems, and will need community support. These people are in addition to the approximately 18,000 who were already receiving some kind of relief before the pandemic, Federation says.
Garber said there are families who cannot make their mortgage or rent payments, let alone continue to send their children to Jewish day schools or maintain synagogue memberships.
Wener, a veteran community leader, commented on the economic fallout and human toll of the pandemic: “I have never seen such carnage in my lifetime,” he said. “This is our community’s greatest challenge in living memory.”
Demand for low-cost housing alone is up by 400 percent, says the Federation, which has recently opened a subsidized apartment building. The psychological stress of the ongoing health crisis is evident in increased domestic violence and addiction the Federation’s agencies are seeing.
Federation estimates that 300 Montreal Jewish community members have died from COVID, and a moment of silence was held for them during the launch of the Community Recovery Campaign.
The Federation has cut its own expenses in order to re-allocate resources to where they are most needed, said CEO Yair Szlak. Its staff has been reduced by 30 percent through layoffs and attrition. Remaining staff have had their salaries reduced, with senior management seeing cuts at a higher percentage, Szlak said.
The net result is a reduction in human resources expenses of more than 60 percent. Other costs have been trimmed by close to 70 percent, he said.
Its dozen agencies have also slashed their overhead, and Federation is now funding them on a monthly basis, Szlak said. A much “leaner” community apparatus is anticipated for the foreseeable future.
The campaign’s priority is to provide relief to those newly turning to the community over the next 12 to 18 months so they can get back on their feet and not become permanently dependent, said Federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz.
“This could mark the beginning of a period of significant decline for the community if we do not act now,” she warned.
A sum of $40 million is earmarked for an emergency fund, with the remaining $60 million sought going to what would have been the general campaign.
The launch’s guest speaker was Bari Weiss, who surprised many when she resigned as a staff opinion writer and editor at The New York Times this month.
In her letter to the paper’s publisher, which she made public, Weiss claimed she had been “bullied” by colleagues during her two years on the job, ostensibly for her pro-Israel views and advocacy against antisemitism, as well as for her unpopular conservatism.
Connecting to the Zoom conference from San Francisco, Weiss said the COVID pandemic should make Jewish communities in North America ponder deeply about what is “essential,” and that may not include the impressive physical structures like those she grew up with in Pittsburgh.
Instead, she suggested, communities should prioritize what ensures a sustainable and full Jewish life for all.
She urged communities to “think audaciously” about what their post-pandemic Jewish life will look like, and perhaps find an example in the early Zionists who took a leap of faith in leaving sometimes comfortable lives in Europe to fulfill an ideal.
“If there is a silver lining, it is that this is an opportunity for tshuvah, for return to what truly matters…to decide what is essential for generations to come,” she said.
Weiss, author of the book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, said her sense of security as a Jew in America was shattered by the murderous attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, where she had her bat mitzvah.
Now, as an outspoken “public Jew,” Weiss said she is the recipient of criticism “as a Jew” and worse, death threats, but this has only strengthened her conviction to “represent the Jewish people in a way that reflects well on all of us.”
Antisemitism has “intensified” with the pandemic, she said, because “historically, whenever there has been turmoil people look for a villain, and that has almost always been the Jew.”