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Covid-19 endangers Madrid’s Jewish life

At 8 p.m. on April 9, Igor García, a young Venezuelan violinist, stepped on to his balcony in Madrid and played “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. The beautiful rendition received an ovation from his neighbors, and a video of the performance went viral.

Garcia, who is not Jewish, said he always felt a strong connection with the song and its message of hope. “I wanted to find a way to help people. If a doctor can heal Covid-19, a musician can heal the soul,” he explained.

Hope is what Spaniards need right now. Madrid is the epicenter of the virus in one of the hardest hit countries in the world. Spain’s Covid-19 per capita death rate is second only to Belgium, and the country has been in lockdown since March 14.

The virus has not spared the city’s estimated 6,000 Jews, creating previously unimaginable circumstances. There’s an average of 1.5 Jewish burials in a normal month, said Leon Benelbas, president of the Comunidad Judía de Madrid, the umbrella Jewish communal organization. This last month there have been seven.

Due to the strict government restrictions on funerals, the families and friends of the deceased have not been able to attend the burials. Currently, just four people are taking part, Madrid’s chief rabbi and the three members of the Chevra Kadisha’s board.

“The toughest thing has been telling a son, or any family member, that they cannot be present at their father’s burial, that they will not be able to say Kaddish,” said Dr. David Levy, the president of the Chevra Kadisha.

Levy, a renowned scientist in the field of nanotechnology with a PhD from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that he has had to take the role of family mourner upon himself.

“Saying Kaddish in the name of the families has been an extremely emotional and painful moment for me,” he said.

Despite its small size, the Comunidad Judía de Madrid manages to provide its own school with 350 pupils, several synagogues, a Chevrah Kadisha for Jewish burials, a charitable food and housing network, and even camps. These hard-won institutions, built in a country that had virtually no Jewish life for 450 years after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, are struggling to survive during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Jewish community’s school, which finances its own kosher diner, extracurricular activities, religious services and a private security force, is under severe financial stress, as parents face monetary hardships under a paralyzed economy. Before Covid-19, the Jewish community, through the Ezra organization, provided food on a weekly basis for 75 people in need, a number expected to double over the coming months. The food has always been delivered by third-party distributors to protect the anonymity of the recipients, in the Maimonidean tradition of safeguarding the dignity of the receivers of charity.

Volunteers in the community used to cook the food for the frail and disabled who are unable to cook themselves. Now, with government’s mobility and sanitary restrictions, the food must be purchased directly from restaurants and supermarkets, resulting in skyrocketing costs.

“We’ve had to close the synagogues and establish a psychological support hotline,” said community president Benelbas, the man charged with keeping this charity network afloat.

Leon Benelbas, president of the Comunidad Judía de Madrid

Leon Benelbas, president of the Comunidad Judía de Madrid

In a sense, he is as well-prepared for this task as anyone could be. Mr. Benelbas, 68, was born in Morocco, in the city of Larache, which once had a vibrant Jewish community. After moving to Spain as a child, Mr. Benelbas joined the country’s civil service during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. He went on to become a general director at the Ministry of Finance, often representing the Spanish government at the IMF and the OECD, before founding his own company. Nonetheless, for all his years at the helm of government and business, Mr. Benelbas has never faced a crisis quite like this one.

In spite of everything, Dr. Levy said he finds inspiration in the Jewish principle of pikuach nefesh― that saving human life takes precedence over almost any other religious commandment. When the crisis is over, he said, he hopes the community will hold a ceremony to “reconcile itself with what has happened.” In the meantime, family members will continue to have no choice but to watch their relative’s burial via livestream.

Benji Mazin is a government relations consultant in Madrid. He writes for various Spanish newspapers. @benjimazin

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